Replacing Summer Fallow with Grain-Type Field Peas: Rotational Costs and Benefits

Replacing Summer Fallow with Grain-Type Field Peas: Rotational Costs and Benefits March 8, 2016

Why Grow Field Peas?

Using cover crops to improve soil quality in the semiarid environment of western Nebraska, where water is the main yield-limiting factor, may not be economically justified. Over the past 30 years many farmers have adopted no-till summer fallow and no residue removal as important water conservation practices under wheat-corn-fallow or wheat-fallow rotations. However, evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds and absence of new herbicide Modes of Action (MOA) in the past 25 years have prevented many farmers in western Nebraska from controlling weeds during summer fallow and avoiding excessive soil water extraction. This soil moisture loss can severly impact the succeeding crop.

Photo showing field pea nodulation and establishment
Figure 1. Field pea nodulation (left) and established stand. 

Replacing no-till summer fallow with a cool season legume crop such as grain-type field peas may:

  1. reduce the number of herbicide applications, potentially delay the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds, and preserve no-till summer fallow as a valuable water conservation practice;
  2. provide rotational benefits through nitrogen (N) fixation, improve soil physical and chemical properties, and increase biodiversity above and below ground; and
  3. generate profit.

The trade-offs are that field peas may deplete soil water and potentially reduce the yield of the succeeding wheat crop (yield penalty = 5-6 bu/ac-inch of water loss), especially in dry years.

The objective of this two-year rotational study was to compare impact of field peas vs no-till summer fallow on water use, soil fertility, beneficial insects and soil microorganisms, yield of succeeding wheat crop, and profitability.

Study Site and Data Collection

The study was initiated in spring 2015 on a cooperator's field in Chase County near Enders. The field site was historically operated under a no-till system in a wheat-corn-fallow crop rotation. The predominant soil type was Blackwood loam. The strip trial was a pairwise (side-by-side) comparison of field peas vs summer fallow with nine replications (total of 18 strips, each 60 ft x 2,650 ft).

The field pea cultivar Salamanca was inoculated (Cell Tech liquid inoculate) and drilled (10-inch drill) in strips at 180 lb/ac seeding rate on March 20, 2015. There was good establishment and nodulation (Figure 1), and the crop was harvested July 20, 2015. Winter wheat was planted across the whole field on Sep 14, 2015 and it will be harvested in strips in summer 2016 to evaluate rotational effects of treatments on wheat yield.

Actual crop evapotranspiration (ET, i.e. water use) was estimated using the soil water balance method:

ET = Rain + Soil water at beginning – Soil water at end – Runoff – Deep percolation

Soil water status was measured every 12 inches to a depth of 36 inches using Watermark® granular matrix sensors (Irrometer Co., Inc., Riverside, Calif.), which were installed in representative areas of the field pea and fallow plots. Crop water productivity was calculated for field peas by dividing grain yield by seasonal ET.

Soil fertility was evaluated by taking one soil sample for each treatment at different times and depths and having them tested for nitrate (NO3-N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), organic matter (OM), and microbial activity (Solvita® test). Potential biological control Bacillus were targeted for isolation from the roots of mid-season pea samples. The isolates of the microbial biocontrol agents were identified through 16S rDNA.

Quantification and diversity of beneficial insects and potential pests were measured by collecting insects from pitfall traps capturing insects moving along the ground and sweep nets used twice during the growing season to capture insects on plant foliage during the growing period. Profitability was calculated for both treatments based on:

  • current market price of field peas ($5.5/bu),
  • actual costs of farm inputs (seed, fertilizer, herbicides, etc.), and
  • cost of farm operations (planting, spraying, harvest, based on UNL crop budgets in 2016).

Treatment effects on wheat yield are yet to be evaluated. Soil fertility, water use, and profitability data will be shown in this report.

Soil Fertility and Soil Microbial Activity

Soil samples showed that organic matter (OM) and concentrations of actual soil nutrients did not differ between field peas and summer fallow (Table 1). A Solvita® test taken one month after wheat planting indicated higher soil-microbial activity and annual N release in areas of the field where field peas were grown (Table 1).

Table 1. Seasonal changes in soil nitrate (NO3-N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), and organic matter (OM) for the field peas and fallow treatments.
27-Mar-15 0-8 Field peas 20 23 389 1.7
Fallow 19 26 365 1.7
14-Sep-15 0-8 Field peas 33 102 966 1.9
Fallow 34 82 1066 2.1
16-Oct-15 0-12 Field peas 60 24 424 1.8
Fallow 40 14 361 1.6
13-24 Field peas 43 13 442 1.4
Fallow 95 90 431 1.7
25-36 Field peas 35 9 340 1.4
Fallow 47 9 519 1.3
N release/year
16-Oct-15 0-12 Field peas 52 42
Fallow 28 22
Field shot comparing field pea vs summer fallow water usePhotos comparing residue levels of field peas and fallow in newly planted winter wheat.
Figure 2. Water use (ET) in the summer fallow field was 6.0 inches compared to 10.9 inches in the field peas. For the difference in moisture the field peas yielded 36 bu/ac.
Figure 3. Photo comparison of field pea residue (left) and fallow residue in newly planted winter wheat field.

Water Use and Water Utilization

Water use data indicated that field peas used 10.9 inches of water to produce 36 bu/ac yield, which resulted in crop water productivity of 3.3 bushels per acre-inch. Whereas, fallow used 6.0 inches of water without producing any grain. At time of harvest, the field peas had 6.9 inches of available water in the top 36 inches of soil, which was 2.9 inches less than fallow (Figure 2). However, 5.3 inches of soil water recharge occurred from July 20 to November 15 (Table 2), which resulted in good winter wheat crop establishment.  On the other hand, fallow remained near field capacity (i.e., full soil water profile) and did not have the ability to store the 5.3 inches of rainfall (Table 2). Differences in residue cover were also evident (Figure 3).

Table 2. Temporal soil water status (inches) in top 3 feet of soil, rainfall (inches), and evapotranspiration (ET, inches), of field peas and fallow during 2015 growing season, along with field pea water productivity (bu/ac-inch).




3-27 to 7-20 Field peas 10 12.1 6.9 10.9 36
Fallow 10 9.8 6
7-20 to 9-14 Field peas 7 1.7 7.8
Fallow 10 10
9-14 to 11-15 Field peas 7.8 3.6 Field capacity Water Productivity
(Yield/ET) =
3.3 bu/acre-inch
Fallow 10 Field capacity
3-3-27-2015 field peas planted, 7-20-2015 field peas harvested, 9-14-2015 winter wheat planted

Potential Beneficial Insects and Microorganisms

The pitfall trap data showed that field pea plots supported more insects living along the ground than the fallow plots; in particular, there were a greater number of beneficial predators (wolf spiders and rove beetles), parasitoid wasps, and decomposers (dung beetles and carrion beetles). However, there were also a greater number of potential pests (click beetles and leafhoppers). These insects did not cause harm to the field peas, and we will investigate whether there are any effects on the winter wheat crop growing in 2016. The sweep net data showed that there were a greater number of beneficial predators (several types of spiders and hoverflies) in the field pea plots compared to the fallow plots. When field peas are flowering, they are particularly able to provide resources for beneficial insects. If these insects stay in the field, this could have positive effects on pest control for the following winter wheat crop. In general, field peas supported a higher number of beneficial and potentially pest insects when compared to fallow, but the impact that this has on the following wheat crop is not yet known and will be studied this year.

Analysis in the laboratory showed that the root of field pea supported high bacterial growth. Two bacteria isolates from pea root samples were identified as Lysinibacillus sphaericus and Bacillus cereus and they are both microbial biological control agents. Samples will be taken in spring 2016 to clarify whether these organisms persist and affect specific microbial populations in the following winter wheat roots compared to the winter wheat crops after fallow. This year, we will study how this may affect root colonization by specific microorganisms such as mycorrhiza, beneficial Bacillus but also soilborne plant pathogens.

Profitability Analysis

Profitability analysis showed that raising 36 bu/ac field peas and selling them at $5.50/bu market price generated profit of $54/ac, while cost of managing summer fallow was $57, making $111/ac difference in farmers’ net return (Table 3). Further economic analysis will be performed after wheat harvest and taking into account benefits that may come from higher microbial activity and N release rate that was observed in areas of the field where field peas were grown.

Table 3. Profitability per acre of field peas vs. fallow.
Field peasFallow
Date Input Cost
Date Input Cost
3/27/2015 Planting 11.2 6/3/2015 Spraying 4.2
Spraying 4.2 Burndown herbicide 14.9
Seed 45 7/15/2015 Spraying 4.2
Inoculant 12 Burndown herbicide 14.9
PRE herbicide 28.2 8/21/2015 Spraying 4.2
7/20/2015 Harvest 24.1 Burndown herbicide 14.9
9/3/2015 Spraying 4.2 SUM 57
Herbicide 14.9 NET RETURN – $57
SUM 144


Field peas have potential to be used as alternative to no-till summer fallow in wheat-fallow and wheat-corn-fallow rotations to increase sustainability of crop production in western Nebraska. Although, effects on wheat yield are yet to be evaluated, this years’ preliminary results showed that field peas had

  • better water utilization (i.e., water productivity),
  • higher soil microbial activity,
  • support a greater number of beneficial insects and microorganisms, and
  • were more profitable than no-till summer fallow.

It is also important to mention that this year’s weather conditions (i.e. wet year) favored growth and production of field peas, and that research needs to be replicated in dry years to capture worst case scenarios. No-till summer fallow remains an important water conservation practice in western Nebraska.


Farmers in southwest Nebraska and UNL researchers are financially supported by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the field pea seed industry to continue addressing issues of sustainable field pea production in western Nebraska.

Thank you to Chris Pursley and his family of Enders for their hard work and dedication to this on-farm research study which generated information to benefit our farming community. 

Field pea variety test plots at Venango
Figure 4. Field pea variety trials at Venango.

Additional field peas resources

Strahinja Stepanovic, Extension Educator
Jeremy Milander, Research Technologist
Julie Peterson, Extension Entomologist
Chuck Burr, Extension Educator - Water
Daran Rudnick, Extension Irrigation Specialist
Tony Adesemoye, Extension Plant Pathologist
Cody Creech, Dryland Cropping Systems Specialist
Rodrigo Werle, Extension Cropping Systems Specialist
Dipak Santra, Alternative Crops Breeding Specialist