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Kephart, K.D. G.A. Murray, and D.L. Auld. 1990. Alternate crops for dryland production systems in northern Idaho. p. 62-67. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Alternate Crops for Dryland Production Systems in Northern Idaho*

Kenneth D. Kephart, Glen A. Murray, and Dick L. Auld

    1. Grain Sorghum
    2. Quinoa
    3. Soybeans
    1. Meadowfoam
    2. Mustard and Spring Rapeseed
    3. Lupines and Faba Beans
    4. Flax
    5. Crambe
    1. Buckwheat
    2. Safflower
    3. Sunflowers
    4. Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)
    1. Winter Peas
    2. Winter Rapeseed
  8. Table 1
  9. Table 2
  10. Table 3


Dryland areas in northern Idaho are among the most productive in the world. Most areas receive greater than 56 cm (22 inches) of annual precipitation, with 90% occurring during fall, winter and spring months. These conditions combined with mild winter conditions, allow average soft white winter wheat yields of 4,400 to 4,800 kg/ha (65 to 70 bushels per acre). Wheat yields often exceed 6700 kg/ha (100 bushels per acres) in the more productive areas.

The excellent adaptation of winter wheat, combined with production-oriented government programs, has intensified wheat production in northern Idaho. Wheat is often produced 2 out of 3, or 1 out of 2 years of rotation with either spring peas or lentils. Disease, weed and insect problems related to shortened rotations, and increased efforts for erosion control have increased production costs. Increased interest in low-cost input management practices and changes to conservation-oriented government programs are also providing further incentive for diversifying rotation schemes.

A lack of commercially viable alternate crops has restricted the number of options available to northern Idaho farmers as they have coped with these problems. In 1976, the University of Idaho began a systematic search for new crops adapted for production in northern Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Evaluation criteria for identifying potential crop species in experimental field trials included:

Agronomic adaptation.

Alternate crop development in northern Idaho has concentrated on oilseed and grain legume species (Table 1). Development of an oilseed industry in northern Idaho could help satisfy regional demand for vegetable oils by the food processing industry, and possibly exploit existing oilseed export markets to Pacific Rim nations. Expanded grain legume production could help offset the current importation of high protein animal feed supplements from other regions of the United States and Canada. The symbiotic nitrogen fixing capability of legumes grown in rotation may also reduce fertilizer nitrogen requirement of non-legume crops. Alternate crops discussed in this paper (Tables 1, 2, 3) are grouped according to: (1) species offering no production potential; (2) species offering limited production potential; (3) commercialized species with limited production potential; and (4) commercialized species with unlimited production potential based on ten years of field evaluations in northern Idaho.


Grain Sorghum

Grain sorghum is a warm-season summer annual with poor adaptation to the winter rainfall cycle and cooler temperatures of the Pacific Northwest. The earliest maturing hybrids obtained from mid-western states have failed to produce mature seed in northern Idaho.


Quinoa is a spring-seeded broadleaf cereal native to the high plains of the Andean mountains of South America (Langer and Hill 1982). In 1985 and 1986, quinoa cultivars adapted for production at elevations above 2,300 m in Colorado failed to produce at Moscow, Idaho (elevation 800 m). All quinoa cultivars tested in northern Idaho were very indeterminate and late to mature. All cultivars failed to produce viable seed before killing frosts occurred in the fall. Heavy lygus bug (Lygus spp.) infestations occurred both years, requiring repeated insecticide applications. While quinoa has shown promise as an alternate crop for production areas at higher elevations in central Colorado, existing cultivars of quinoa have shown poor adaptation to northern Idaho environments.


Day neutral soybean cultivars developed for production in southern Canada expressed delayed flowering and maturation due to cool night time temperatures often experienced throughout the growing season in northern Idaho (Auld et al. 1978). Late maturing soybeans were exposed to fall precipitation, which reduced crop quality. Late maturation also interfered with establishment of fall sown grain or cover crops. As soybeans require processing for their use as a feed grain or oilseed crop, market potential in northern Idaho is limited by the lack of processing facilities.



Meadowfoam is a winter annual species native to the coastal areas of the western United States Jolliff et al. 1981). The seed of meadowfoam can be crushed to yield an oil high in eicosenoic acid (20:1) used for industrial processes. Meadowfoam is very tolerant of wet soil conditions, and has shown promise as an agronomic crop in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon. Inadequate winterhardiness, prostrate growth habit, and excessive shatter have severely limited meadowfoam yields in northern Idaho.

Mustard and Spring Rapeseed

Cultivars of mustard and spring rapeseed evaluated in northern Idaho were developed in Canada and North Dakota for areas with greater summer rainfall. Experimental yields at Moscow, Idaho have seldom exceeded 1,000 kg/ha. Under northern Idaho conditions, mustard and spring rapeseed did not flower until late June or early July, exposing pod development and seed maturation periods to typically hot and dry weather. Flea beetle and lygus bug infestations further reduced yields, and increased production cost by frequent insecticide applications. Neither spring rapeseed or mustard are competitive with existing rotational crops under northern Idaho environments. Small contract acreages of spring mustard are grown in the region for the condiment industry. Spring rapeseed may be better adapted to cooler, irrigated regions of southern Idaho where spring wheat varieties are competitive with winter wheat.

Lupines and Faba Beans

Lupines are spring sown grain legumes grown for oil and feed in Europe and Australia. Lupines possess an upright growth habit attractive for direct harvesting, but their large seed size necessitate high seeding rates and make proper establishment with commercial small grain drills difficult. Higher seeding costs limit lupine production for green manure or forage purposes. Like soybeans, lupines have not flowered in northern Idaho until moisture and temperature stress periods of July and August. No serious insect problems have been observed, but powdery mildew (Microsphaera penicillata var. ludens) and a bacterial pod blight have been observed on lupine crops grown in northern Idaho. Lupine yields in northern Idaho have averaged less than 900 kg/ha.

Faba beans are cool season grain legumes that also possess an upright growth habit. Like lupines, most faba beans possess a large seed size that increases production costs and establishment problems with existing small grain equipment. Faba bean seedlings are susceptible to feeding damage by pea leaf weevils (Sitona lineatus L.). Several foliar and seed blights indigenous to spring pea production areas will also infect faba beans. Faba bean seed yields have been as high as 1800 kg/ha, but inconsistent yields and poor market opportunities have limited production. Canadian faba bean production has dwindled due to limited export markets. Winter-hardy faba bean cultivars mature earlier and may produce more consistent yields under northern Idaho conditions. Evaluation of winter-hardy faba bean cultivars possessing smaller seed size was initiated in the fall of 1988.


Experimental yields of oilseed flax (cv. Linott) in the northernmost counties of northern Idaho have been from 800 to 1800 kg/ha (Auld et al. 1980), compared to 600 kg/ha usually achieved in North Dakota. However, a lack of commercial processing facilities in the Pacific Northwest has made flax uneconomical for commercial production. Flax also produces minimal crop residue, limiting it's adaptation to soils with low erosion potential.


The oil from crambe seed is high in erucic acid. This type of oil is used to manufacture synthetic lubricants and plastics. Crambe yields have averaged 1,800 to 2,200 kg/ha in trials conducted at Moscow, Idaho in 1983 and 1984. Average seed oil content has been 35%. Existing cultivars lack uniform maturity, edible meal characteristics, and shatter easily. Commercial oilseed crushing facilities for crambe are not currently available in the region.



Buckwheat is a broadleaf cereal marginally adapted to the warmer dryland cereal production areas of northern Idaho (Auld et al. 1986). Buckwheat is more drought tolerant than many other alternate crops, but is sensitive to frosts and requires a relatively long growing season to mature in this area. Swathing buckwheat provides uniform maturity and improves crop quality, but further adds to production costs. Export markets to Japan for sorba noodle production do exist for commercial buckwheat crops of acceptable quality.


Sallower has been grown periodically in the Pacific Northwest for the past 30 years (Auld et al. 1987c, Hang et al. 1982, Murray et al. 1981). Sallower production can readily use existing equipment, but is only moderately adapted to the warmer dryland cereal production areas of northern Idaho. Sallower is the most heat and drought tolerant of the alternate agronomic crops commercially available. While sallower blooms and sets seed during periods of declining soil moisture and high temperatures in July and August, yields of 2,300 to 2,800 kg/ha have been obtained by commercial production. Growing seasons are usually too short for sallower production at higher elevations. In rotation, sallower stubble provides excellent snow trapping for good soil and water conservation in combination with other conservation practices.

Commercially produced sallower seed contains 32 to 52 percent oil. Selected cultivars have been modified by breeding programs to produce improved edible oils with good market potential. A small number of sallower acres are contracted each year in northern Idaho to serve California crushers. Development of earlier maturing cultivars could improve yield potential of sallower in northern Idaho, and offer opportunity for expanded commercial production.


Commercial sunflower hybrids can be grown in the warmer dryland areas of northern Idaho (Murray et al. 1978, Murray et al. 1986). Late maturity; dry, hot summer environments; limited production experience; and lack of suitable equipment have limited the seed production potential of sunflowers. Sunflower silage production has been more successful. Dryland sunflower silage yields adjusted to 70% moisture content have averaged nearly 30 metric tons/ha at Moscow, Idaho from 1978 to 1980. Feeding trials have shown sunflower silage is an acceptable forage for growing beef steers, dairy heifers and dairy cows in mid to late lactation.

Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)

Chickpeas are large-seeded grain legumes that offer higher return than traditional peas or lentils (Murray et al. 1987). Both domestic and export markets exist. The introduction of the California cultivar 'UC-5', combined with good market development, led to a developing chickpea industry in northern Idaho in the early 1980s. Two cultivars, 'Lyons', and 'Aztec', were developed and released by the University of Idaho to expand existing markets (Auld et al. 1985).

Ascochyta leaf blight (Ascochyta rabiei) is a seedborne disease that has caused catastrophic losses to this industry in recent years. To reduce disease inoculum levels, a self-imposed industry moratorium on chickpea production was enforced in 1988, and will be continued in 1989. Adoption of field and seed sanitation standards combined with resistant varieties may allow this industry to recover.


Winter Peas

The inclusion of a fall planted legume into crop rotations offers the advantage of atmospheric N2 fixation combined with a winter cover to help reduce soil erosion (Murray et al. 1987). Winter peas have been grown in northern Idaho for over 50 years, but increased disease and insect pressures threaten continued production. Winter peas can be harvested for seed, combined with winter cereals for silage production (Murray et al. 1985), grown for green manure to restore depleted soil organic matter (Auld et al. 1982), or combined with winter cereals for harvesting as a multiple seed crop (Murray and Swenson 1984). Commercial seed yields have varied from 1,000 to 3,400 kg/ha during the past 10 years. Continued production of winter peas in northern Idaho has depended on development of improved cultivars (Auld et al. 1983), and improved cultural management recommendations (Murray et al. 1984b, Murray et al. 1987).

Winter Rapeseed

Winter rapeseed is an oilseed crop belonging to the mustard family. Winter rapeseed has shown the greatest potential for adaptation in northern Idaho among all alternate crop species, largely due to the potential diversity of use as a rotational crop. Winter rapeseed provides excellent soil erosion control, and reduces disease problems in cereal and legume rotation crops.

Seed of rapeseed can be crushed to produce an oil selected for two distinct uses; edible oil for human consumption, or industrial oil for producing synthetic lubricants, varnishes, and plastics. The defatted meal of "Canola" quality cultivars can be used as a high protein feed supplement. Used as a green manure crop, the elevated glucosinolate levels found in the green tissue of specific cultivars may suppress soilborne pathogens of cereals, potatoes, and legumes. Winter rapeseed can produce 10 to 20 metric tons of dry forage/ha possessing 9 to 12% protein levels. Rapeseed oil could also serve as alternative fuel oil in times of emergency (Peterson et al. 1988).

Commercial winter rapeseed yields have varied from 2,300 to 4,500 kg/ha in northern Idaho. Commercial seed oil content has varied from 42 to 48%. Rapeseed crushing facilities do not currently exist in the Pacific Northwest for either edible or industrial types. Markets do exist for whole rapeseed exported to several Asian countries, particularly Japan. Small domestic markets exist for industrial rapeseed shipped to mid-west processors.

Over the past ten years, a comprehensive set of management recommendations including cultivar selection, seeding rates, planting dates, row spacings, weed control, soil fertility, and harvesting have been developed for winter rapeseed production in northern Idaho (Murray et al. 1984a). In addition, commercial cultivars have been developed with reduced glucosinolate levels in their meals and with improved fatty acid compositions to enhance their industrial and edible oil market values (Auld et al. 1987a, Auld et al. 1987b).


As new crop species are identified for potential adaptation in northern Idaho, preliminary evaluation trials are conducted. Sufficient management information must first be generated to permit pilot production of promising crop species. More extensive research is then conducted for species showing greatest commercial potential. Extension programs also are implemented to assure successful production of these crops by area growers.

The development of new cultivars and improved management practices have made winter peas more competitive with existing rotational crops. New winter rapeseed cultivars with an expanding range of markets including edible oils, industrial oils, green manure, forage, and alternative fuel oils will continue to be developed. Evaluating the agronomic adaptation of new rapeseed cultivars, while improving production management recommendations also will continue.


*Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station Contribution. 88762.

Table 1. Alternate agronomic crop species evaluated at the University of Idaho from 1977 to 1988.

Winter rapeBrassica napus L.xxxxxxxxxxxx
SunflowerHelianthus annuus L.xxxxxxxxxxxx
SallowerCarthamus tinctorius L.xxxxxxxx
MustardB. juncea (L.) Czerniakxxx
Spring rapeB. campestris
CrambeCrambe abyssinica L.xxxx
FlaxLinum usitatissimum L.xx
SorghumSorghum bicolor (L.) Moench.x
LupinesLupinus albus (L.)
Faba beansVicia faba L.xx x
SoybeansGlycine max (L.) Merr.xx
Winter PeaPisum sativum subsp. arvense (L.) Poir.xxxxxxx xxxx
ChickpeasCicer arietinum L.xxxxxx
BuckwheatFagapyrum esculentum Moench.xx
MeadowfoamLimnanthes alba (L.) Hartweg ex Benth.xx
QuinoaChenopodium quinoa Willd.xx
Total species1195555995545

Table 2. Potential erosion control, equipment needs and end-use of commercialized alternate agronomic crops in traditional fall grain-spring legume areas of northern Idaho.

Specialized equipment requirementsCommodity end-uses
Primary Alternate
Winter rapeseedExcellentNoneSeedForage, green manure
Winter peasModeratePea headerzSeedSilage, green manure
SunflowerModerateUnit planter,
rowcrop header
ChickpeasPoorUnit planterySeedNone
zRequired for semidwarf cultivars.
yEither unit planters or conventional grain drills capable of handling soybeans required for chickpeas.

Table 3. Summary of planting practices for alternate agronomic crops adapted for commercial production in northern Idaho.

CropPlanting dateSeeding rate (kg/ha)Row spacing (cm)Maturity date
Winter rapeseedAug. 1-158-1118Aug. 1-15
Winter peasSept. 1-1518Aug. 1-15
Long-vined types77
Semidwarf types135
SallowerApr. 15-May 12818Sept. 1-30
SunflowerApr. 15-May 1052-75ySept. 25-30
ChickpeaApr. 15-May 1018Sept. 1-15
zplants per meter2.
yRow spacing must match harvest equipment.

Last update February 12, 1997 by aw