Greig: Centre backs Ontario canola growers’ push for profitability

A Canola Learning Centre has been created to try to solve some of the challenges Ontario farmers have growing consistent, profitable canola.

Canola is now the largest crop grown in Canada, this year overtaking wheat, but in Ontario canola acres have been decreasing, by about a third in the past five years, to 40,000 acres, challenged by pests and disease, compared to profitable and easier-to-grow crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat.

Canola is only grown in Ontario in its northern growing areas as well, which limits the acres.

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Partially funded through Growing Forward 2, so far for only one year, the Learning Centre is a project of the Ontario Canola Growers and Agronomy Advantage Inc., an agronomy consulting company that does a lot of work in canola. The farmer co-operator at the site is Darcy Martin.

During a grower day at the site — north of Arthur, about 40 km northwest of Guelph — industry experts took farmers through the highlights of some of the work being done at the site and the latest in canola research.

Deb Campbell of Agronomy Advantage talked about the challenges growing profitable canola.

“It has become harder to make a consistent return on a canola acre, versus a soybean acre… It’s been erratic,” she said, “and we haven’t been optimizing the hybrids we have now.”

Canola has become an option in a cropping plan, not a given, she said.

The eight acres of trials being conducted at the site include low-, medium- and high-rate seeding trials, a twin-row planter system versus narrow rows with a seeder. They are also comparing four different nitrogen rates, a pre-plant application (110 lbs of nitrogen) and then several, higher top dress applications.

The goal is to compare various interactions to figure out which is most profitable.

The site has received 20 inches of rain in May and June and that has thrown wrenches into several of the trials, especially nitrogen. The field had Lystek, a biosolids product, applied the fall before last year’s corn crop and Campbell had expected 15 to 20 per cent residual nitrogen available this season. Her tests show there has been very little mineralization of residual nitrogen this year due to saturated soils.

“Residual nitrogen doesn’t exist in 2017,” she said.

Campbell and her staff are making use of drones to measure crop health and in the canola plots, that has shown some striking differences in development, some expected, such as faster emergence from the canola planted with a seeder versus a planter. Some of the plot area was cultivated three times, some two times and there was a surprising difference between the two areas in crop development on the canopy map.

Once you’ve identified issues in the canopy, Campbell says you have to go to the plot to find out what’s going on.

The two different zones caused by tillage differences had five and seven parts per million on a nitrate test.

“Seven parts per million as we’re coming into full, big reproductive canopy, I don’t think that’s enough,” she said.

There aren’t soil nitrate curves for canola in Ontario, no standard way of evaluating nitrate levels. This year on 250 nitrate tests, Campbell said there are more under 15 parts per million than over 20 parts per million. She blames that on the rain and no mineralization of residual nitrogen.

When she looks at nitrogen curves for high-yielding canola from southern Manitoba, “I don’t think we’re using high enough N rates.”

The Manitoba curves suggest 160 lbs. of N for 50-bushel canola.

“I don’t know that many of us are in that category” of nitrogen application. “These new hybrids seem to have a higher demand for nitrogen.”

She hopes some of those questions can be answered in the test plots.

It has been challenging to get the top-dress nutrients on the field due to weather. The crop is at the stage where she doesn’t want to apply 28 per cent nitrogen. The plan is to top-dress with another broadcast fertilizer product.

Tissue tests have also shown some issues with nitrogen-sulphur ratio and potassium levels, which are also an indication of the challenges with too much rain and the inability of the crop to get nutrients it needs from the soil.

Canola seed rates changing

Marieke Patton of Bayer Canada said canola growers should likely be lowering their plant population targets.
photo: John Greig

One of the major areas of research at the site is seeding rate. Newer hybrids are being shown to thrive at lower seeding rates.

The Ontario plots are looking to validate research already conducted by Bayer in Western Canada with their InVigor hybrids that show they yield better at five to seven plants per square foot.

“The recommendation for the last decade or more for the past decade or so, we’ve been targeting seven to 11 plants per square foot,” said Marieke Patton, of Bayer Canada.

Bayer evaluated several areas where seeding rates have an impact. First, yield; second, getting good weed control, especially if the crop is too thin; and third, white mould. Plant too thin, you get better air movement, but plant too thick and you might have more white mould. A fourth area: lodging.

When seeding rate is lowered from 11 to seven, there’s still good weed control, less sclerotinia pressure and yield remains strong, she said.

Clubroot now an Ontario problem

Dan Orchard, an agronomist with the Canola Council of Canada, brought his years of experience managing clubroot in Alberta to Ontario growers.

Canola fields affected by clubroot were first found last year in Ontario.

His main message is that with some diligence, the problem should be able to be controlled in Ontario.

The biggest challenge with control in Alberta is the very common canola-wheat-canola-wheat rotation. The clubroot spores need a consistent host and longer rotations without a host reduce levels of infestation.

They’ve found fields in Alberta now with more than a billion spores per gram of soil. Even if a two-year break (three-year rotation) reduces spore level viability by 95 to 99 per cent, one per cent of a billion is still enough to cause a problem.

In Ontario, without a widespread problem yet, spore loads should be much lower. Ontario farmers usually use a rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat, with canola thrown in, so there’s inherently an advantage for control here versus in Western Canada with shorter rotations.

Add resistant traits to good rotation and Ontario should be able to control the disease, said Orchard, adding that resistant traits are a band-aid, not a cure.

Clubroot evolves and some resistance traits have failed, so they aren’t a long-term solution. Use them before you have a problem, he said.

Soil is the principle way the spores spread, and the disease is often first found near field entrances. Equipment sanitation is important, although Orchard acknowledged complete cleaning of equipment is challenging when you want the equipment in the field at planting time. Just knocking off some of the dirt with a shovel will help, he said.

Winter canola again of interest

There’s always some interest in winter canola in Ontario, but the seed and agronomic infrastructure has not yet developed to support the crop.

According to Agricorp, the province’s crop insurance organization, there were eight growers of winter canola in the province, said Meghan Moran, OMAFRA’s canola and edible bean specialist.

Winter canola is attractive because it can be grown in warmer areas of the province as it will mature before the weather gets too hot, and then a second crop can often be grown on those fields.

So far, farmers need to import seed from American suppliers. There are agronomic questions to be answered yet, including how canola pests will react to the earlier growth and how they can be controlled, how to best manage weeds and how to plant it.

U.S. seed suppliers suggest seeding the winter canola with a planter on wider rows than farmers in Ontario are used to.

Plots at the Canola Learning Centre have received different planting rate and nutrient treatments.
photo: John Greig

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Field editor

John Greig

John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia.

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