CARRINGTON, N.D. – Researchers at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center (REC) are working on developing cow pea varieties to be used for seed and cover crops in northern climates.

The project is a collaborative effort among the NPSAS, NDSU, South Dakota State University and University of Wisconsin.

“Cow peas are another fancy exotic crop,” said Frank Kutka, Farm Breeding Club co-coordinator, during the fourth annual organic/sustainable agriculture tour at the NDSU Carrington REC. “They’re from Africa, specifically developed in western Africa.”

Cow peas have been and currently are a huge food crop in many parts of the world.

“People eat the leaves and they actually make cake out of cow peas,” said Kutka. “There are a lot of things you can do with them.”

Based on the crops popularity outside of U.S. borders, the project set out to see if it was possible to grow cow peas in a much different climate.

“We came at them completely ignorant,” said Kutka. “Who the heck is growing cow peas in North Dakota? It’s just not the first thing you think of when you come up here.”

The project is currently in the final year of variety trials, which started out with about 90 different cow pea varieties.

“We did a screening and accessed what sounded like the fastest, shortest, and quickest maturing cow peas on planet Earth and we grew them out,” said Kutka.

Gathering money for research through a grant was difficult because of a growing concern that cow peas were something farmers couldn’t grow in North Dakota.

“We barely got the grant because people really questioned whether or not you could really grow cow peas here, but luckily a few of our members had grown some and saved some of their seed. That let us demonstrate that it could work. Whether it would be a good option or not for cover crop usage, more specifically producing cheaper cow peas for cover crop – that we didn’t know.”

The researchers ended up growing out the varieties in two separate locations, expecting to find about 25 varieties deemed suitable for seed increase.

“We got six or eight in one and 11 in the other,” he said. “We looked at what we had and sent them to one of our project partners in Puerto Rico where they grew out the seeds and did seed increases over the winter.”

How can something from Africa grow in Carrington, N.D.?

“You’ll never know until you try,” said Kutka. “Cow peas as a cover crop are not for fall planting. They really like it hot and they really don’t care if it’s dry. This spring they were one of the first things to pop up. When it gets cold they don’t go very fast and when it gets hot they start to go while everything else starts to wither.”

Those are just some of the many reasons why researchers are fascinated by the potential of cow peas for early cover crop planting or forage uses.