Farm Talk

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February 25, 2014

Will ‘canola belt’ expand east?

Parsons, Kansas — A hotbed of interest in winter canola overlaps traditional dryland wheat country, with an estimated 400,000 acres planted this year primarily in Western Oklahoma and Southern Kansas.

But Brent Rendel, a farmer from Miami, Okla., and current chairman of the Oklahoma Oilseeds Commission, believes the real growth area for winter canola is east of where it’s currently being marketed.

“Last year, I had 70-bushel wheat, where normally I get 40 to 50 bushels,” he recalled. “But I also had a 40-acre strip of canola in one of my fields. I would have needed 90-bushel wheat to make as much money as I made off of the canola. It’s not just about breaking a monoculture; it’s about making more money. I’m working on getting the canola industry to push that aspect.”

Rendel’s canola averaged 1,600 pounds per acre, which he described as “pretty good.” He said he had limited success with the crop the previous two years.

While experimenting with the crop, he’s discovered several keys to improving its profitably. First, he reduced the widely recommended seeding rate of 5 pounds per acre to 1.8 pounds. “At $10 a bushel for the seed, reducing the seeding rate is a huge deal,” he said.

Controlling volunteer canola is a necessity in double-crop rotations, so the availability of good conventional varieties — in addition to Roundup ready strains — has also been important for success on his farm.

Finally, Rendel started planting his canola with a modified row crop planter instead of a grain drill or air seeder.

“It’s not a grass. It’s got to be treated more like a bean,” he said. “We need to place the seed rather than scatter it.”

Rendel is currently trying out a European-style “Monosem” precision planter, designed for small seeds and traditionally used in the South for planting vegetables. He was able to get the planter on loan through a sales representative he met at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa. So far, he’s pleased with the results.

Several leading manufacturers are tweaking planting equipment to better suit the rapidly expanding canola industry, according to Jeff Scott, president of the Great Plains Canola Growers Association and a farmer from Pond Creek in North Central Oklahoma.

“It’s exciting to see the ag industry getting behind this and developing the technology to handle this crop,” he said at an industry-wide “Canola College” held recently in Enid, Okla., where more than 400 farmers attended educational sessions.

The consensus among canola leaders is that potential exists for more acreage east of Interstate 35, although just how widely it will catch on is uncertain.

“I see very high yields coming out of that area,” Scott said. “They have a multitude crops they can grow, but I do think canola has a place.”

Oklahoma State University conducts a handful of canola variety trials across the state, including one at Miami, where an annual field day is held in late spring.

“We’re getting excellent yield results there, and it does have good potential,” said OSU canola specialist Josh Bushong, who oversees the trial. “We do know that it needs well-drained soils.”

Bushong said one thing that might fuel more interest in canola in Northeastern Oklahoma is an announcement by North Dakota-based Northstar Agri Industries that the company plans to build a new canola processing plant in Enid. Company representatives attending the canola meeting said the project is on schedule to open in 2016. Better logistics and less freight cost could tip the balance in attracting new growers, Bushong said.

At least 20 different grain companies now handle canola in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, some of them operating multiple locations, and the region’s two leading processing facilities are currently located at Oklahoma City and Goodland, Kan.

Another selling point for canola is the price typically peaks at harvest time in late May and June, since the bulk of canola is a Northern Plains spring crop that hits the market later in the year, Bushong said. Expanded availability of crop insurance and falling prices for corn could also contribute to greater interest over a wider area in the future, he added.

Heath Sanders, an agronomist and field specialist for the Great Plains Canola Growers Association, said he had concerns about the potential for excessive rainfall in Eastern Oklahoma as well as challenges managing residue in no-till systems.

“You can get some extremely big plants in the spring,” he said.

“I really think the growth of acres will be from I-35 west because of the erratic rainfall we have in that area,” he added. “What we’re really pushing is a system of growing wheat and canola together, and I think they compliment each other extremely well. We are seeing some great increases in wheat yields following canola.”

Canola’s rotational benefits are apparently not limited to wheat. Rendel said he has also seen a yield boost in soybeans following canola. Studies have shown canola’s root system improves soil structure and moisture infiltration.

Kansas State University canola breeder Mike Stamm recalled that early experiments with canola in Southeastern Kansas didn’t turn out so well. “That area tended to have very tight soils, which is not real good for canola,” he said. Difficulty coaxing good stands from challenging soils led to problems with winter survivability, he added.

“That was five or six years ago, and varieties have improved quite a bit, and our ability to manage the crop is improving too,” he noted. “It might be a case where we just need to do a better job of choosing target areas to grow it.”

Ron Sholar, a former OSU agronomist and soybean specialist for 30 years before taking over as the canola association’s first executive director in 2007, said canola can flourish in Northeastern Oklahoma but still needs to overcome competition from other crops.

He’d like to see growers in Oklahoma and Kansas eventually reach a new threshold of one million acres. For now, Southern Plains production is a tiny fraction of the nearly 20 million acres grown in Canada and the Northern U.S.

But in a nod to how much promise the region holds, the U.S. Canola Association now has two producers and one industry representative from the Southern Plains on its 26-member board and held its first national meeting there last fall.

Being on the ground floor of building a whole new industry, one that inspires the kind of enthusiasm demonstrated by the excellent turnout at the Enid event the last two years, is gratifying to Sholar.

“This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with,” he said.

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