Faba beans a fave for Webbs

Headshot of Cally Dupe
Cally DupeCountryman
Ben Webb in a paddock of Farah faba beans.
Camera IconBen Webb in a paddock of Farah faba beans. Credit: Countryman

Variety is the spice of life for Kojonup farmers Ben and Emily Webb, who are in their fifth year of growing faba beans this year.

The legumes fit in as the break crop between cereals wheat and barley and now form an important part of the Webbs’ 1100ha cropping program.

Their program this year is about 35 per cent Roundup Ready canola, 15 per cent Jurien lupins and Faba beans, 15 per cent Williams oats; with the rest split between Planet barley, and Sceptre and Illabo wheat.

The Webbs also grow vetch, as well as a range of perennials including lucerne, chicory and Tonic plantain.

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As well as cropping, the Webbs also run Marbarrup Merino stud, which has 1400 Marbarrup-Merinotech stud ewes, and a 3200-head commercial flock.

Founded about 30 years ago, Marbarrup Merino stud is a daughter of ram breeding co-operative Merinotech WA, which Mr Webb’s father Bill Webb chairs.

Despite faba beans once being described as “failure beans”, Mr Webb has found a way to make them work.

“We have been growing small areas, while we work out how to grow them,” he said.

“The appeal was mainly to fill the soil with nitrogen, to use as a break crop, control the weeds and root disease.”

The Webbs’ annual rainfall is about 535mm and the beans are planted into non–wetting, forest gravel soils.

In a normal year, the Webbs seed winter wheat and canola in early-to-mid April and follow up with beans, lupins, barley, oats and wheat.

After first trialling faba beans in 2015, the Webbs’ faba beans yielded 2t/ha tonnes last year, so successful they have put in 100ha this year.

“We weren’t getting a big yield response in the following cereal crops from growing lupins, and we found they removed a lot of the nitrogen with the seed,” he said.

Australian faba beans are predominantly exported to Egypt.

Mr Webb said he knew of several farmers growing beans in the Kojonup area, to make the most of the legumes’ nitrogen–fixing ability.

He ran his own on–farm experiments with beans about a decade ago, investigating seeding rates, fertiliser rates and new varieties.

Mr Webb said growing beans had been a big learning curve.

Some of the biggest challenges included managing disease, “figuring out” seeding techniques, and managing previous chemical use on paddocks pegged for legumes.

“You need to have your Ph right, be careful of the chemicals you use in the year beforehand, use a high seeding rate, get them in nice and early, and manage the broadleaf weeds,” Mr Webb said. “But for us, the beans have been good for nitrogen fixing and we see a difference crops following.”

While it is a relatively normal year on the Webbs’ farm, the mixed farmers are trying a few things differently.

Mr Webb was busy this week, modifying a Plozza plough to go 300mm deep, to increase the clay percentage in the topsoil. They plan to try ploughing for the first time in September, ahead of planting their annual summer crops, with the hope it will bring up clay soils and help the farmers’ wetting agent work more effectively. The farmers are also in their third year of growing a winter wheat, Illabo, after first trialling it in 2016.

“We are still learning what to do there, we were just looking for something we could seed earlier with the chance to graze sheep,” Mr Webb said.

After growing up on the family farm at Kojonup, Mr Webb went to boarding school and university in Perth. He returned to the farm 13 years ago.

Dr Webb works as a doctor in Katanning, and together the couple have two boys, James, 9, and Rob, 7, and a daughter, Georgia, 4.

The Webbs say faba beans are here to stay in their rotation, with farm gate prices ensuring the crop is returning a profit.

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