You don’t get there unless you try. That’s the reasoning behind the Canola Council of Canada’s ambitious plan for Canada to produce 26 million tonnes at 52 bushels per acre by 2025.
“Targeting is the one word that defines this strategy over others before it,” says Canola Council president Patti Miller. “Targeting in agronomy and markets.”
But does reaching that number mean breaking some of the council’s agronomic advice so far?
Not that farmers haven’t been doing that already, ignoring the one-year-in-four rotation recommendation, with some even seeding back to back. Better returns for canola prompted them to take the chance.
But there’s new competition for those acres. Soybeans have already taken a chunk out of canola area in the eastern Prairies, and Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer have plans for varieties that could occupy up to eight million acres in Western Canada.
So to meet the Canola Council’s target, the increase will have to come from yield. Recent experience suggests that’s a challenge.
Across almost a third of all crop acres in Western Canada, Prairie canola yields peaked at 40.6 bushels per acre in 2013 to provide the record production of 18.4 million tonnes. But the past five-year average yield was 33.9 bushels per acre, 5.6 per cent higher than the previous five years, and well below the 13 per cent increase for CWRS wheat.
If canola yields continue to increase at the current rate, they’ll hit just 37.6 bushels by 2015, compared to the council’s target of 52. Is it possible?
Some already there
Miller says the Canola Council took an in-depth look at the agronomic and market potential of canola in setting the 2025 target. Curtis Rempel, the Canola Council’s vice-president of crop production and innovation, says they looked at crop insurance data, noting the upper yield and lower yield in different ecological zones, as well as yield realized in public co-operative trials.
The council points out that some farmers are already achieving the yield necessary to reach the 2025 target. “Growing canola is not prescriptive,” says Rempel. “But all bets are off with some of the yields that we are seeing.” And many are using canola in tighter rotation than the long-held standard of one in four years.
To get more farmers on board with crop management techniques that will boost yield, the council wants to play a larger role in technology transfer. Rempel says today’s farmers need to absorb more information faster than ever before. He says growing canola successfully and achieving higher yield is more than just attending the traditional farmer meetings, but rather tapping into canola information available online, through social media and tools like the Canola Council’s Canola Watch, a weekly email update on agronomy issues.
“There are guidelines that we feel strongly about, like seeding rates, speed, seed depth and soil temperature,” says Rempel.
The council also intends to work closely with life science companies, which have communication avenues of their own to reach farmers with information about best management practices.
“Canola is a complex crop and farmers have done an excellent job of understanding it and how to grow it,” says Chris Davidson, head of corporate affairs for Syngenta Canada. “But there is opportunity for improvement on yield and value.”
He says to maximize yield potential, farmers must focus on weed control, trash management, seeding rates as well as herbicide rates and timing of application. Davidson says seed treatment and crop protection will continue to play an important role as new varieties are rolled out with genetic traits that tackle diseases like clubroot, blackleg and sclerotinia stem rot. Varietal development is also focused on improving shattering resistance to facilitate more straight combining.
Genetics will be key
“As a member of the Canola Council, we had a say in setting the target. It’s ambitious, fine. It’s challenging, but it is a good path. The bridge will be yield,” says Michiel de Jongh, newly appointed president and general manager of Monsanto Canada.
“There are three pillars working for canola production. Germplasm with modern breeding technology, biotechnology and agronomic practice. Many of the theoretical yields can be delivered; they are now in a lot of fields. When germplasm, biotechnology and good agronomic practice all come together for all farmers, you get that target yield.”
Monsanto points to a digital future with “big data” to help farmers make their management decisions. In 2013 it purchased The Climate Corporation, which uses farmers’ own field data to prescribe decisions for a host of management choices, from seeding rate to input application tailored to individual areas of the field.
Competition for acres
Brian Oleson, professor and head of agribusiness and agricultural economics with the University of Manitoba, says the Canola Council’s aim of 26 million tonnes by 2025 is “a bit of a stretch target” and that safer bets would be in the range of 22 million to 23 million tonnes. Since the target does not forecast a significant increase in acres, most of that growth will have to come from increased yield.
Representatives of other crop organizations also have their eye on increased production on the same acres.
“There is room for a complete basket of crops,” says Brent Vankoughnet, executive director of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association. He acknowledges that the canola industry is dealing with disease challenges.
“It would be interesting to push, from a research perspective, practices in wheat production that compliment canola and vice versa,” says Vankoughnet. “As traditional agronomy avenues and public research funding diminishes, it is incumbent upon producer organizations to take a greater role in delivering that information to farmers.”
“All commodities have targets but ultimately it is international markets that will decide if that target will be met,” says Gord Bacon, chief executive officer of Pulse Canada.
Pulse Canada is looking forward to International Year of Pulses in 2016 which he hopes will push the continuing success of pulses among farmers’ crop choices. “A commodity has to be competitive and beneficial to farmers.”
The Canola Council maintains that domestic and global markets are clamouring for more Canadian product, not only as food and feed but also in nutraceuticals and industrial products.
Bruce Jowett, vice‑president of market development for the Canola Council, says the industry will continue to expand in major markets of the United States, China, Mexico and Japan, which at present make up 90 per cent of business. Meanwhile, secondary markets for seed, oil and meal will need some attention in the drive to the 2025 target. Also, there’s the importance of capitalizing on small market segments, such as the growing Hispanic community in the United States where canola use is low but health issues like diabetes are equal or higher than other segments of the population.