Winter canola catches on down south

Winter canola took a drought hit in the southern U.S. in 2015, but experts are optimistic about industry expansion

It may have struggled with tough weather, but winter canola seems ready to take off in the Great Plains region of the southern United States.

Spring canola is already widely grown in the northern states, but winter canola is a relatively new addition to rotations in the southern Great Plains, where temperatures prohibit spring varieties. Across the U.S., 1.7 million acres of canola were planted in 2014; in the southern Great Plains, 400,000 acres were planted to winter canola varieties. In 2015, the overall figure dropped slightly to 1.57 million acres due to drought, but was still the third-largest year on record.

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The United States Canola Association (USCA) is spearheading much of the canola industry’s development. One key initiative is its “Promote Canola Acres” program, formed by the USCA Canola Acreage Task Force in 2007 to expand acreage in new growing regions. “By 2018, the total proposed U.S. acreage goal is 3.7 million with a national yield goal of 1.8 million,” the USCA says on its website.

Regional goals are also set to increase, with the Northern Plains increasing from one million to 1.7 million acres by 2018 and the Southern Great Plains moving from 400,000 to 1.5 million acres.

These figures are low compared to Canada’s 20-million-plus acres recently, but USCA assistant director Dale Thorenson notes that 10 years ago there were zero canola acres in the Southern Great Plains, so today’s acreage is significant.

Rotation option

“A few years ago, a lot of people didn’t think acreage would be this high. You need to develop infrastructure, but winter canola has long-term potential,” Thorenson says. “There are 10 million, 12 million acres of wheat on wheat in the Southern Great Plains, but a lot of that is infested with cheatgrass and ryegrass. It’s a monocropping culture, and growers who are introducing canola are finding that their wheat yields are increasing by 15 per cent the following year.”

This year the U.S. federal government appropriated $419,000 in research dollars for Kansas State and Oklahoma State universities for winter canola development and production, and $139,000 went toward canola production in the southeast via Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University.

Josh Lofton, the cropping systems specialist at Oklahoma State, says canola research and breeding has been a collaborative effort among the three universities and the public sector.

“Kansas State has a top-notch breeding program that has provided growers throughout the region with high-quality cultivars since the recent adoption of canola,” he says. “However, we also have several private companies that provide us with many high-end winter canola varieties and hybrids.”

Growing winter canola was one of the subjects of a University of Kentucky field day in May this year.

Growing winter canola was one of the subjects of a University of Kentucky field day in May this year.
photo: University of Kentucky

Production challenges

Great Plains Canola Association executive director Ron Sholar says winter canola growers have experienced their fair share of challenges over the last few years. Several years ago, the industry saw exponential growth in the region — over 300,000 acres, nearly 250,000 of that in Oklahoma alone. A disastrous drought in 2013-14 meant winter canola growers took a big hit on yield and quality; cautious growers halved acreage in the fall of 2014.

“Environmental conditions are the primary concern,” says Lofton. “Producers in the state have a one-month planting window from September 10 through October 10, and if poor conditions occur within this time frame, this can result in producers either planting on the later end of that spectrum or not planting their intended acres.”

Growers who plant later or plant into dry conditions run the risk of early freezes, which can decrease stands and winter survival. Some growers have also seen excessive fall growth followed by early-fall cold events, causing stand loss.

Prices have also dropped precipitously. “Growers are having to use a short pencil to figure out how to make this or any crop possible, and take a hard look at every input,” Sholar says. “Wheat is cheaper to grow than canola, but you’ve had less opportunity for profitability historically.”

He says the benefits of winter canola make it worth the risks. Adding winter canola to wheat rotations means dramatically higher yields, improved weed control and cleaner wheat seed. Canola yields, while they vary throughout the region, average at 1,200 pounds per acre (24 bu./acre), though they can go to 2,000 pounds per acre (40 bu./acre) or higher.

“There’s a long history in this part of the country of not adding new crops,” says Sholar. “If you look at the crops that are grown here 50 years ago to today, there’s very little change. This is one of the things I’ve been most excited about, about canola.

“We’re not talking about a niche crop — this is a crop that can be grown in production agriculture. We’ve hit a speed bump with the weather and the price, but we’re optimistic that we’re going to create a canola culture down here because we need it so badly to rotate with wheat.”

Expansion potential

Lofton regularly talks to growers, extension personnel and industry representatives about both agronomics and long-term positioning of canola in the region. He says that despite recent challenges, he is hearing reports of nothing but increasing interest throughout the state.

“As canola has become a critical rotation with winter wheat, many growers have said they know they would be much worse off without canola in the system,” Lofton says. “And there is great potential for winter canola to grow and expand into more regions within the state and the U.S. Just recently, I have received calls from Mississippi and Colorado regarding winter canola production questions.”

“We have a lot of potential for expansion here — we have a lot of acres that should be in rotation with canola and wheat. We do need to see price improvement and that our weather improves, but we’re optimistic,” says Sholar.

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Julienne Isaacs

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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