Swath or desiccate? Risks and reward at lentil harvest

Swathing will produce the green lentil colour attributes some markets are looking for, but chasing the premium comes with significant risk. | File photo

Colour brings a premium, but wrinkles and sprouts can quickly downgrade a crop and wipe out any potential gains

Harvest season is often a race against time and for lentil growers looking for optimum quality, timing is everything.

Seedcoat colour, particularly for green lentils, is a quality factor that may earn a premium, but obtaining that premium depends on, yes, timing.

Seeding early, using varieties that retain colour better and paying attention to disease and weeds are all important.

When it comes to harvest, most farmers will choose to desiccate the crop and straight-cut it, but they could swath and combine.

Quinton Stewart, president of the Canadian Special Crops Association, said that decision comes down to weighing risk and reward on individual farms.

“From my experience typically you have a better chance of hitting number one colour, whether it’s small green lentils or large green lentils, without desiccating,” Stewart said. “At the same time obviously if you have rain and wrinkles and sprouts, that’s a significant downgrading factor, probably even more so (than the premium would earn).”

Research done more than a decade ago at the University of Saskatchewan looked at both harvesting methods, as well as varieties, to learn what factors contribute to colour retention.

That study found that swathing nearly always produces a better colour, but keeping the colour was more difficult because of environmental conditions as the crop waited to be combined.

However, desiccating wasn’t necessarily better because the crop could be left standing in poor weather.

“Do what you can to maintain that quality and colour and that’s about as best as we can do,” said Greg Bartley, director of crop protection and quality at Pulse Canada.

Dale Heenan learned early that swathing lentils wasn’t for him.

The Grand Coulee, Sask. farmer began growing lentils in the late 1970s. After swathing for the first two years, he said it was obvious that wasn’t going to work.

“One little shower and it was growing into the ground, starting to sprout and losing colour,” he said. “It gets really ugly really fast.”

The Heenans use Reglone to desiccate, finding it dries faster and keeps the colour better than using glyphosate. They grow small green lentils and he said the difference between grades is often a little weight and the colour, and a price spread of one or two cents.

Application timing is important to catch the crop at the right stage.

“You have to be careful. If you spray too early it can mess it up,” Heenan said, adding that chemical companies provide pictures and information to help farmers make their decisions.

Desiccants don’t help a crop mature. They simply dry down a mature crop.

Bartley agreed that harvest timing is key to maintaining quality.

A crop that stays on the field too long is at too much risk of being blown around, rained on or affected by disease.

“You don’t want to get in too early and lose potential yield or quality factors, but you also don’t want to leave it in the field longer than it has to,” he said.

Whether swathing preserves colour more than desiccating becomes moot when it’s a matter of getting the crop in the bin.

Bartley said there are market considerations when it comes to desiccating and farmers are beginning to think about that more often.

“The good news is (of) the options for lentils diquat (Reglone) is one of the most popular,” he said. “We tend to not have too many market access concerns with that desiccant.”

Farmers should examine their crops before harvest and assess which product to use.

“Do I need to desiccate to bring that crop maturity down or do I need to get in to do some pre-harvest weed control?” he said. “That’s where glyphosate would enter the picture.”

Bartley encouraged producers to discuss this with their agronomists and make sure they are using the appropriate product for their buyers. Keep It Clean is a good resource, he said.

The premium in a normal year is one to two cents per pound for good colour, added Stewart, but not all markets offer more.

“Typically India, for example, isn’t willing to pay premiums and actually often looks for off grades as a replacement for pigeon peas. They just want cheap so it’s not that the colour needs to be very profound or vibrant,” Stewart said.

“If you look at Dubai, they’re really particular about colour. Some of the European markets too. Those are the markets that are willing to pay the premium for that type of quality.”

In years when lentils are in short supply, the premium could stretch to three or four cents per lb. but Stewart said individual producers have to make decisions based on their own circumstances.

“It’s a consideration that growers need to make. I think it’s a reality for them. In most years is a one cent premium worth the extra risk? Probably not,” Stewart said.

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