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Alternative Crop Guide

Published by the Jefferson Institute


A High Value Alternative Legume


Dry edible beans, or field beans, come in a wide variety of market classes, including kidney bean, navy bean, pinto bean, and black bean. These beans, although differing in the size and coloring of the seed, are all just different types of a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris L. Originally domesticated in Central and South America over 7000 years ago, dry beans moved their way northward through Mexico and spread across most of the continental U.S. These beans were commonly grown with corn, and sometimes squash. Now, instead of the Native American practice of dry beans and squash planted right among corn plants, a different bean, soybean from China, has found its place with corn. The other key difference, of course, is that our modern corn and soybean crops go primarily to feed livestock, instead of being strictly for human food like the old corn and dry bean system used for thousands of years.

Although grown on a much smaller acreage than soybeans, dry beans are still an important food crop in the U.S. The leading states in dry bean production are North Dakota, Michigan, Nebraska, Colorado, California, and Idaho. Total U.S. production is approximately 2 million acres. Pinto beans are the market class occupying the largest acreage, followed by navy beans. Dry beans have occasionally been grown under contract in Indiana. Some varieties of dry beans are suitable for Indiana's growing conditions, but the crop is more variable in yield and price than soybeans. However, the advantage of dry beans as an alternative is their relatively high price, ranging from $12 to $20 per bushel.

Plant Description

Dry beans are the same species as green beans (snap beans) commonly grown in gardens. If you've seen green beans growing, you have a good idea what dry beans look like, with the difference being that dry bean varieties have higher seed yields. Some dry bean varieties are viney like garden bean varieties, while others are more of an erect, bushy plant, like soybeans. Dry beans do not grow as vigorously as soybeans, usually reaching only about 18 to 24 inches in height. Pods, each containing 2 to 4 seeds, are borne upon the length of the stem.

Dry beans average about 22% protein in the seed. The amino acid profile of dry beans complements that of corn and other cereal grains, which is why the corn-bean diet was so standard through the Americas. The various market classes of dry beans are sold in a variety of forms. Great Northerns, navy beans, or mixes of beans, are the most likely to be sold as whole seeds in unprocessed form. Navy beans and kidney beans are both found in canned form, with kidney beans also common in chill mixes. Pinto beans and black beans are both made into refried beans, among other uses. Red beans are used for baked beans. Dry beans which do not meet quality standards for food use are typically sold for livestock feed. Like soybeans, dry beans have a trypsin inhibitor which prevents protein digestion in non-ruminant animals, including humans. Heat, applied during processing or home cooking, is needed to break down the trypsin inhibitor and make the beans fully digestible.

Markets and Economics

Farmers thinking about growing dry beans must be prepared to do some investigating into marketing options. Although there have periodically been buyers of dry beans that have arranged delivery points in Indiana, these contracts have not always been stable for a multi-year period. It is best to have a contract for sale of the beans before ever planting them; otherwise, you can end up with a bin full of dry beans and no place to easily sell them. A few growers have been successful in direct marketing their beans, such as to a small scale food processor; the state department of agriculture's marketing division may be able to help identify possible buyers.

Production costs for dry beans are usually somewhat higher than for soybeans. Extra costs on dry beans can include higher seed cost, needing to spray for insects or diseases (more likely in dry beans than soybeans), or needing extra labor during harvest. Nitrogen fertilizer may be put on dry beans, which would not be the case with soybeans. Post-harvest costs are certainly higher for dry beans, both due to the extra care needed for cleaning and storage, and the possible transportation costs. Some buyers will want the seed bagged in large food grade bags before purchasing it.

On the positive side, gross returns from dry beans can easily be higher than for soybeans. While yields are typically lower, around 20 to 30 bushels per acre, prices are much higher, ranging from $12 to $20 per bushel. Achieving a good net profit is dependent on choosing an appropriate market class and good varieties to grow, keeping production costs under control, and finding a cost efficient way to clean, store, and deliver the crop. Although dry bean prices fluctuate, as a food crop they do not follow the prices of corn and soybeans. Adding dry beans to the mix of crops on a farm can help spread out the risk from changes in market prices.

How to Grow Dry Beans

Dry beans should be grown on well drained soils. They are not well adapted to heavy clay soils, and are not tolerant of water logging. Since dry beans are a relatively high value crop, they should be grown on the best soils on the farm. To reduce potential disease problems, it is best to plant dry beans following a grass crop such as corn, wheat, or sorghum, rather than after soybeans or sunflowers. Dry beans should not be grown in the same field in consecutive years.

In southern Indiana, dry beans can be double cropped after wheat. For central Indiana, double cropping dry beans is possible but more questionable. In most years, they will mature before frost if planted July 1, but yields may be lower. Since dry beans have a good profit potential, it is best to plant them as a sole summer crop in the central and northern part of the state. When planted in early June, the determine, bush varieties will mature in about 105 days, while the indeterminate, vining type will be mature (80% yellow pods) in about 95 days. However, maturity can be delayed by variable weather conditions.

Varieties and Seed Sources

There are a large number of dry bean varieties available. The first step in variety selection should be identifying which market class can be most easily and profitably marketed. Yield comes second. For example, if you determined that the best yielding black bean would only yield 80% of what the best navy bean would yield for your location, you might think the logical choice is the navy bean. Then you might find out that the black bean was worth twice the price of navy beans, was less likely to discolor during harvest, and was easier to sell - clearly, your choice would change.

For the Midwest, dark seeded market classes, such as black beans, are most appropriate. Lighter colored beans, like navy beans, can become discolored by rain during the few weeks before harvest. The market classes do vary in how easy they are to direct combine. Black and kidney beans tend to stand upright much better than pinto bean varieties, for example. Choosing a variety with reasonably good height (18-24 inches) can increase harvestability; many kidney bean varieties only reach 12 inches tall! No dry bean market class or variety at this point is as tall or easy to harvest as soybeans, leading to harvestability being a major factor in variety selection, along with yield and disease resistance.

Seed companies that sell dry bean varieties may be able to provide some ideas on market outlets. You can also contact the Jefferson Institute for additional information on market classes and available varieties (phone 573-449-3518).


In Indiana, dry beans can be planted between mid-May and mid-June. Planting in May will generally provide higher yields than planting in June. Planting depth should be 1 to 2 inches. Bush-type dry bean varieties are best planted in 15 inch rows, or drilled in narrow rows. Growing them in 30 inch or wider rows does allow cultivation for weed control, but at that spacing, the beans usually fail to "close the row." Planted in narrow rows, the beans can fill in the rows more quickly, shading out weeds more effectively. It has been observed, however, that row planters often provide a better dry bean stand than using a grain drill.

Planting rates vary from 50 to 120 pounds per acre, depending on the seed size of the variety to be grown, and to a lesser extent, the row spacing used. Navy beans and black beans should be planted at about 50-60 lbs./acre in wide rows, and 70-80 lbs./acre drilled in narrow rows; pinto beans at 60-70 lbs./acre wide and 80-90 lbs./acre for narrow rows; and the largest dry beans, such as kidney beans and great northern beans, at 90 to 100 lbs./acre in wide rows and 110-120 lbs./acre in narrow rows. Planting rates might need to be increased further for no-till planting.


Dry beans should be inoculated to insure Rhizobium phaeoli is available for nodulation. Although they fix their own nitrogen, dry beans may still show a yield response from applied nitrogen fertilizer or organic sources of nitrogen. For highest yields, especially under irrigation, supplying 40 to 50 pounds of supplemental nitrogen per acre is recommended, either from fertilizer N or organic N sources. Phosphorous and potassium should be applied in accordance with soil test recommendations for soybeans. Banded P and K are recommended for top yields, with the band one inch to the side and two inches below the seed. Soil pH should be between 6.5 and 7.0 for best dry bean yields. Liming is recommended if soil pH is below 6.5.

Pest Management

Weeds. As a short crop with relatively slow seedling establishment and growth, dry beans are not very competitive with weeds. Since they are often planted in late spring, there is time to do a tillage pass a couple of weeks before planting to sprout weeds, then come back right before planting with additional tillage to kill those weeds. Drilling the crop in narrow rows can also help with weed control. There is a fairly long list of herbicides labeled for dry beans, including: Assure 11, Basagran, Dual, EPTC, Frontier, Lasso, Paraquat, Poast, Prowl, Pursuit, Roundup, Select, Sonalan, and Treflan. Check the product label to confirm that dry beans are covered and for guidelines.

Insects. There are several times when insect pests can cause damage to dry beans. Weekly scouting of fields is recommended. Like soybeans, dry beans are susceptible to bean leaf beetle, other leaf feeders, and cutworms during establishment. Usually, the dry beans can tolerate up to 50% defoliation for a short period in the seedling stage, and still bounce back nicely. As the plant develops, white flies may briefly infest the crop, disrupting plant tissues and causing wilting and stunting of foliage; whiteflies also have the potential to introduce a virus to the plants. Later, as pods are developing, various sucking insects, such as stink bugs, can damage pods and the appearance of seeds. Since seed appearance is much more important with dry beans than with soybeans, pod and seed damage must be monitored closely. There are about 40 insecticide products labeled for dry beans, along with some organic materials such as pyrethrins that can work well.

Diseases. Dry beans are more susceptible to diseases than many crops, especially in a humid climate like Indiana's that can have extended wet periods. Viruses, fungi, and bacterial diseases are all potential problems. Once a virus or bacterium attacks, there is nothing that can be done, but certain fungal diseases can be treated with one of the 30 fungicides labeled for use on dry beans. Bean rust, which shows up late in the season, and white mold, a rotting disease in wet years, are two serious diseases of dry beans that can be controlled by fungicides.

Disease control strategies to use with dry beans include selecting resistant varieties, rotating crops, and scouting for white flies or aphids that can introduce a disease. Avoiding poorly drained soils can also help prevent fungal diseases. Bacterial blights, which are seed borne, may be avoided by using only certified, high quality seed; using bin run dry beans for seed is not recommended, since they may carry blight or other diseases.


The vining types of dry beans are sometimes swathed, but the bush types are almost always direct combined. Dry beans can be harvested with the same equipment as soybeans. Flexible cutter bars are helpful in getting closer to the soil, since dry beans tend to have pods very close to the ground. Rotary combines reportedly do a good job with dry beans. There are specialized dry bean combines available that have two cylinders made to get good seed cleaning without seed breakage.

It is important to keep in mind that dry bean seed appearance is very important to the price obtained for the crop. Besides the normal seed cleaning, dry beans may need to be polished with damaged seed removed to obtain full value.

Harvest can start when seeds are at 18% moisture. This is generally when some pods are brown and a majority of pods are yellow. Cylinder speeds at high moisture can be 300 to 450 rpm, but the cylinder speed should be slowed down with drier seeds. Sieve setting should be 7/16 of an inch, with relatively high fan speeds. Concaves should initially be set 1/2 inch at front and 1/4 inch in the rear, and opened up further as the beans dry down. The combine's operating manual may have suggestions on settings for dry beans. If beans are cut when the pods are getting really dry, seed shatter can become a problem.

One caution for harvest in Indiana is that rains at the time of harvest can cause discoloration in the seed, especially of a navy (white) bean type. This is one reason that drier regions in the Great Plains, California, and the Pacific Northwest have had a competitive advantage with dry beans. Harvest should be done quickly to help avoid discoloration. Choosing a dark seeded variety can help minimize this problem.

Seeds should be stored at about 15 to 16% moisture. When handling, a belt conveyer is recommended over a metal auger to reduce seed damage. Seeds should be handled gently and not dumped from heights onto concrete or hard surfaces. Careful handling may be more time consuming but will pay off in the price received for a quality bean product.

Written by Robert L. Myers, Ph.D. Published by the Jefferson Institute, Columbia, MO, a non-profit research and education center supporting crop diversification (ph: 573 449-3518). Development of this publication was funded by the USDA-CSREES Fund for Rural America program, as part of a cooperative project with the University of Missouri, Purdue University, and other universities.

Published 8/99, Indiana edition