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Farmers turning to rotation crops

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP)--Montana farmers appear to be planting less wheat this year, partly because they need to recharge the soil after planting back-to-back wheat crops to take advantage of high commodity prices.

"When wheat prices were high, people double-cropped," said Carl Mattson, who farms near Chester and works for the Montana Grain Growers Association. Mattson said he suspects the number of acres planted in spring wheat will go up because fertilizer prices have dropped considerably from last year.

Interest is increasing in pulse crops that don't need fertilizer and naturally put nitrogen back into the soil. Montana farmers responding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture prospective plantings survey last month said they planned to plant 125,000 acres of lentils this year, up from 83,000 a year ago.

The state also plants a quarter of a million acres of peas annually. That crop was expected to increase by 15,000 acres.

Grant Zerbe, who raises chickpeas near Frazer, said pulse crops are a good change for soil depleted by wheat plantings.

"Pulse crops, of course they take less inputs. You don't have to buy nitrogen fertilizer, and they're good in rotation, especially in the northeast our guys are finding they make a great rotation crop with winter wheat," Zerbe said. "Our acres have been growing every year."

Despite the decline in acres planted, wheat remains Montana's most planted crop. All wheat varieties combined should account for nearly 5.3 million crop acres in 2009, down 450,000 acres from last year. Wheat pushed a lot of crops out in 2008 and the state's wheat harvest totaled over $1 billion for the first time.

Hay acreage this year is 108 percent of the 2008 planted area. The number had been on the decline as wheat prices soared.

Dan Downs of Montana Seed in Billings said his spring wheat seed sales are down and that hay is playing a role.

"We had $20 wheat last year, now it's less than half that and a lot of guys are putting in hay forages," Downs said. "Chemicals are still up. Guys know in order to sell what they have, they have to fertilize the hell out of it."

But spring wheat should still produce good earnings, said Dave Buschena, an agriculture economist at Montana State University. The banking system is calming down again, easing concerns about credit for farmers and buyers.

Wholesale fertilizer prices are half what they were previously, though probably higher than at the local level because curbside suppliers paid premium prices for inventory earlier, Buschena said.

"Spring wheat prices do look good, but those prices for lentils and peas are pretty strong and barley prices have been pretty good. Sugar prices are up, too," Buschena said.

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