With 80 percent of canola being imported into the U.S., farmers like Brad Berk believe the time is ripe to harvest a field of knowledge about growing winter canola on the high plains.
Three dozen farmers joined Berk in his field of early-stage lush green canola plants in rural Cloud County, Kan., during a canola field tour on Oct. 31.
They listened to a canola breeder and agronomy experts from Kansas State University discuss the benefits, as well as the challenges of winter canola as a cropping option in central Kansas.
In the middle of his 80-acre field of vibrant green canola plants, Berk of Concordia, Kan., said this is his first time growing canola.
“We’re messing with it, to replace wheat. So far, I’m happy with it. It’s a big experiment and it’s really not more expensive than corn or beans,” said Berk who also farms corn, soybeans and a little wheat. Although, “there’s more profit with canola than wheat.”
While growing winter canola (think: canola oil for cooking ... like sunflower oil) is still fairly new to farmers in Kansas and other states, agriculture experts say canola is growing in interest and popularity in certain areas of the plains.
“In Kansas, we’re seeing winter canola thrive in south central and southwestern Kansas. It can be grown as far north as the Nebraska panhandle, but it’s only on limited acres there,” said Mike Stamm, canola breeder and associate agronomist with Kansas State University.
Stamm traveled to Berk’s farm in Concordia for the canola field day to explain production practices and rotation benefits of canola. In a handbook written in part by Stamm, canola is defined as being, “a type of edible rapeseed, genetically low in erucic acid and glucosinolates. The seeds are sources of healthy cooking oil and high-protein meal for livestock.”
So far, winter canola is showing great promise.
“I was really taken aback by how good the canola looks,” Stamm told his audience in the middle of Berk’s canola field. “We have excellent top growth here, so if it started freezing, we’d still be okay. We’ve had higher rainfall amounts this fall, and the cooler temperatures have benefitted growth.
“There’s a great demand for canola, and that demand is not going away,” he added.
Canola crops have been doing extremely well in the region. In fact, this year shows record results.
“We’re not seeing as many problems with winter survival, which has typically been a struggle for most areas in the northern part of the state. We’re expecting over 50,000 acres in Kansas, whereas last year, there were 30,000 acres in the state,” Stamm relayed.
Comparing the cost of canola to wheat, Stamm acknowledged canola takes more fertilizer than wheat, and the seed cost is higher — although he termed it ‘very comparable.’
Stamm noted that while canola costs 25 percent more than wheat, the price per bushel is $3.00 to $4.00 higher.
“But following winter canola, farmers say they see a ten-percent increase in wheat yields,” he added.
Canola breeder Mike Stamm has grown winter canola through his variety trials at the KSU North Central Kansas Research field west of Belleville, Kan., for the past two years with very good success, noted Kim Larson, crop production specialist with Kansas State University’s River Valley Extension District, which hosted the field day.
She was also impressed with Berk’s rows of canola.
“It appears that his winter canola crop is well on its way and in good shape as we move towards winter,” said Larson.
She relayed that canola — an oilseed — is a benefit that farmers have in adding it to a cropping system because its commodity price is not tied to the price of cereal grains.
“Producers who diversify their cropping systems by producing both cereal grains and oilseed crops can better withstand the risks associated with fluctuating grain markets,” said Larson, adding, “It’s great to see that nearly 40 people turned out for this canola field day. We’re pleased with the turnout.”
Canola farmers can improve winter hardiness by selecting varieties that will hold up best to winter’s cold, and by taking timely measures to get the seed in the ground.
“We seeded our canola variety trial at Belleville two weeks later this year because we were waiting on rain, so we may get our chance to evaluate winter hardiness there. Sept. 5-25 is the best window for this part of Kansas,” Stamm told the farmers.
Generally, winter canola is planted six weeks before the first killing frost, or about one month before wheat planting.
Larson notes an important factor to consider when selecting a winter canola cultivar in this area is winter survival. Cultivars are plant varieties which are intentionally selected and maintained through cultivation. Successful winter survival depends on the genetics of the cultivar, the environment in which it is grown, and the management of the producer.
“There are cultivars developed specifically for the Great Plains that have demonstrated excellent winter survival and performance under stressed environments,” said Larson.
Regarding plant growth in the fall:
• On average: 65 percent to 85 percent of seeds planted produce a viable plant.
• Target plant population is: five to 10 plants per foot row.
• Plants should develop a firm crown and an extensive root system to store carbohydrates used during the colder months.
• Survival increases when plants have seven or eight true leaves, and the canopy height is 6 inches to 10 inches above ground.
• Larger plants require more soil moisture and nutrients.
Farmers were alerted to the color stages of canola’s growth.
“Although the cold weather will turn the top purple, white and even brown, the lower leaf area will probably remain green, and you want that lower interior to remain green,” advised Stamm. “Also, when you drive by a canola field in the early spring, if you smell rotten cabbage, you’re actually smelling the sulfur in the leaf tissue. That’s just what it smells like.”
However, Stamm said that when average temperatures rise into the 40s and 50s, leaves will appear in the center of the canola plant, and the crop will perk-up.
One particular insect concern is the diamondback moth. A researcher who listened to Stamm’s presentation in the field, told The Fence Post, he was there to glean information on the pest and to determine ways that a product he’s testing, could eradicate it.
“We’ve already released Prevathon in Oklahoma where it’s warmer and it’s doing a great job, although canola has been growing there longer,” said Bruce Steward, a researcher and field developer for Dupont Crop Production in Kansas. “We’re trying to see if this product that we’re working on, would help here.”
“It’s a whole new class of chemicals that just came out this year for canola treatment on the diamondback moth and other caterpillars,” added Steward, pointing to a few canola leaves with holes where the diamondback larvae ate through. “Prevathon doesn’t kill parasites, predators or lady beetles.”
Steward planned to conduct some trials of Prevathon on 10 to 20 acres of canola in central Kansas, and monitor its pest-effectiveness.
Vertical tillage was also used to break up the residue and stir some soil.
Berk used a John Deere 1720 CCS precision planter to plant his canola field.
It’s because of canola’s early successes, that Berk decided to grow canola for the first time on his farm, following wheat. Currently though, the nearest location to ship harvested canola is a four-hour drive away.
“I’m going to use short-term storage on the farm, and then pretty soon-I’ll ship it to either Goodland, (Kan.,) or Oklahoma,” said Berk.
One of the farmers listening intently to the presentation, farmer Jason Yarrow told The Fence Post, he’s interested in growing canola.
“I’m considering canola for rotational effects,” said Yarrow, who grows milo, beans, wheat and hay with his dad Jim Yarrow in Wakefield, Kan., adding, “There will be some marketing challenges though, to transport it.”
As Yarrow put it, “We might try some next year.” ❖