A tough year for canola

When Cody Swinehart and his father, David, first planted canola seven years ago, it was to clean up their fields.

“We wanted to get after some of our grass troubles like rye,” Cody said.

But the Swineharts soon realized the crop that blooms yellow each May was a good rotation in their Kingman County, Kansas, fields. It not only helps control weeds but improves wheat yields and is profitable.

Swinehart told his story to a group of producers who gathered in his canola field near Norwich in mid-May. With new varieties on the horizon, Kansas State University canola breeder Mike Stamm, said there is growing potential for canola. 

Kansas canola acres have grown from just a few thousand to more than 50,000 in 2017, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Oklahoma farmers planted 160,000 acres last year. 

“Canola is a great crop to rotate with wheat to clean up wheat fields,” said Stamm, who added canola has other qualities. “One of the important reasons to grow this crop is to boost our wheat yields and quality, plus clean up our ground a little bit. We want to make this part of Kansas more sustainable rather than just growing wheat year after year after year.”

However, like any crop, canola can be susceptible to the weather. And this year was one of the more difficult ones for canola farmers, Stamm said.

According to ag statistics, Kansas and Oklahoma farmers struggled to get seed in the ground due to weather. While Kansas should see a slight increase in acres, Oklahoma farmers planted 43 percent fewer acres due to the crop insurance window. 

“It’s been dry,” Stamm said. “We had a pretty hard winter. We had small canola going into the winter. That combined hurt the crop’s performance this year.”

Hybrids growing in popularity

The Swineharts’ plot through K-State is part of the National Winter Canola Variety Trial, Stamm said. His research involves evaluating experimental varieties to determine appropriate production locations. The trial also aims to increase the visibility of winter canola in the United States. 

“We have all the latest winter canola genetics available to growers in the southern plains and the U.S.,” he said. “We use the national trial as an elite yield testing stage for a breeding program. Any variety we feel could have a potential for being a new release in our program, we’ll enter it in the national trial to see how it stacks up.”

K-State’s breeding program is working on both Roundup Ready varieties and conventional varieties that have disease tolerance and winter survival characteristics that will allow the planting of winter canola across the entire state.

The university then works with major seed companies to market those varieties to producers, Stamm said.

At the site near Norwich, open-pollinated varieties like Torrington, Surefire and Wichita are part of the trial. Stamm said Torrington, sold through Ohlde Seed in Palmer, Kansas, is one of the most winter-hardy commercial varieties available. 

Meanwhile, the Swineharts planted hybrid canola varieties for the first time.

Hybrids are more vigorous than open-pollinated canola, Cody said. The plants emerge quickly and have more potential for higher yields.

Hybrids currently available were developed in Europe. But, as K-State continues its work and with the hybrid’s productivity, Cody sees hybrid canola eventually taking over the market.

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Hybrids are pricey, and Cody said he hates to see the cost on the front end. For instance, while Roundup Ready varieties might cost $25 an acre, hybrids are close to $40 an acre, depending on plant population.

However, Cody said, “I kind of like to push for a higher yield and try to get in the higher end of it. That is what we are trying to shoot for here.”

Stamm added Monsanto, at this time, is backing off its winter canola sales under the DeKalb brand. Monsanto is still focused on breeding and is developing Roundup Ready TruFlex, a spring canola hybrid that will be available to some growers in 2019.

Monsanto’s change in focus does open doors for K-State, Stamm said.

“What that means is we are the developer of Roundup Ready winter canola varieties in the region,” he said. “And we have companies we license our varieties to and market them.”

Stamm said, based on seed sales, 50 percent of the winter canola acres in Kansas and Oklahoma this year are using K-State genetics.

How they do it

Cody said they planted 240,000 hybrid canola seeds an acre on 7 ½-inch rows. Open-pollinated varieties averaged between 300,000 to 400,000 acres on the same row spacing.

They applied about 100 pounds of nitrogen for the season and 35 pounds of phosphorus. Treflan was pre-applied to control weeds. They also spread potassium and sulfur.

Stamm recommends light tillage and seed placement no deeper than 1 inch.

David Swinehart said the plots were planted on the last day possible for insurance, Sept. 30. Usually, they try to hit Sept. 20 as a target planting date.

A rain soon after planting helped establish a stand. But not all farmers were fortunate.

“One of the reasons we saw a lot of producers struggle this year was the lack of fall moisture,” Stamm said. “We haven’t had to deal with conditions like that for a long time.”

Stamm added, “We didn’t get the top growth we have had in previous years. We saw a lot of canola fields with small rosettes, fairly weak plants going into winter and then a fairly tough winter on the crop. We had cold temperatures we haven’t had the last couple years, as well. Canola is small and when it gets down to minus 10, that is pretty hard on the crop.”

The key to a good canola crop includes getting the crop planted on time, getting a good stand and having enough fall growth to get it through the winter, Stamm said.

Stamm said regarding Swineharts’ K-State plot, it was still hard to speculate yields until harvest, but they would be down and variable this year. One plot might yield 5 bushels an acre. Another might yield 30.

Don’t swath early

Swathing is their preferred method of harvesting canola, David Swinehart said.

Stamm said K-State is conducting research on time of swathing. Timing is everything. Farmers who wait until they have at least 40 to 50 percent color change to swath achieve sufficient oil content, Stamm said.

“If you are swathing before 40 percent, you are hurting yourself on oil content,” he said. “Those of you who have it custom swathed, make sure you are making the decision when they are out in the field. Don’t let them make that decision. It’s important you are pulling out there at the right time.”

Direct cutting can yield a slight increase in oil. However, there are disadvantages, Cody said.

Harvest time is critical. The crop can have uneven maturity and seed shattering can be an issue. 

Without the use of a desiccant, canola could be ready to harvest during the peak of wheat harvest.

David said the money saved by not swathing is typically spent on the application to kill it.

Cody said they should start harvesting canola around the first week of June. 

“It’s worked well. We don’t plan on stopping,” he said.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].