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Winter canola may bring gold to farmers' bottom lines

By Jennifer M. Latzke

A disappointing wheat crop, a need to change agronomic practices, or a desire to just try a new cropping opportunity--all were reasons given for Oklahoma farmers to look into growing winter canola in 2010.

The Fifth Annual Oklahoma-Kansas Winter Canola Conference, July 21, brought producers and winter canola experts together to share information and research results into this new golden opportunity on the High Plains. A capacity crowd of nearly 200 filled the Hoover Building at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Enid, Okla., to learn about marketing, variety tests, aphid control, harvest suggestions, and more.

Growing popularity

Tom Peeper, Oklahoma State's Warth Distinguished Professor, explained winter canola's growing popularity in the north central Oklahoma and south central Kansas region can be attributed to many factors, but weather may lead the list.

"This year, a lot of fellas had freeze damage on their wheat and then excess rain in May," Peeper said. "They saw canola could withstand that weather better than wheat. Then, at harvest, their wheat sold at $5 per bushel, compared to $7 per bushel of canola. A lot started getting serious about canola then."

Researchers continue to improve winter canola varieties through breeding. Public breeders from Oklahoma State and Kansas State, as well as private breeders and industry representatives, were on hand to discuss variety trials and improved management styles.

Mike Stamm, OSU-KSU canola breeder, advised beginning growers to pick varieties that have different maturities, in order to spread out the risks during the growing and harvest seasons.

"Pick a variety to fit your management style," Stamm said. Growers can select from Roundup Ready and conventional varieties and with the right management each has its benefits in a production plan.

Newer hybrids have better winter hardiness, herbicide tolerance, low pH tolerance and more. The results are better plants capable of making a crop under even the harshest weather conditions.

"When that freeze did hit, it actually killed the top foot of the plant," Peeper said. "But, the plant rebounded and grew again and made a crop." A crop those farmers could take to the elevator and bank on.

The golden crop

Canola contracts are also set up in the growers' favor, Peeper added. Growers can contract their canola on an acre basis at a set price prior to harvest, rather than based on a set number of pounds to deliver at harvest. He explained that rather than try to fill a contracted amount of production, growers instead promise that whatever canola they raise on those contracted acres will fill their obligation.

Gene Neuens, of the Plains Oilseed Products Cooperative, Oklahoma City, was on hand to answer producers' winter canola contract questions. He reminded producers that when compared to winter wheat, winter canola is more lucrative because it is an oilseed that has an increasing demand in the marketplace. The current 2009 contract price he reported was 15.8 cents per pound, or $7.90 per bushel for 2009 canola. That's 52 percent higher than winter wheat, he said.

Cleaning fields

Weed control on continuous wheat acres is one more factor in the switch for farmers, Peeper said.

"Some have a tremendous weed problem," he said. "We've had problems with rye and cheatgrass and there are guys looking for ways to clean up their wheat fields. If they can add canola into their rotation, they can give weeds the knockout punch and the following year have a better wheat crop."

Jay Bjerke, with Land O'Lakes, added that research from Canada has found that planting canola into cereal stubble has shown a 13 to 14 percent greater yield, and the following rotation of winter wheat improves as well. Bjerke added, one thing winter canola growers in Oklahoma and Kansas must remember, though, is that applications of sulfur are the single biggest overlooked input he sees. Proper field scouting and soil sampling will greatly improve the final crop, he said.

Sharing production tips

Winter canola growers Steve Gates and Monty Williams, both from Kiowa, Kan., drove to Enid to learn more about winter canola from fellow producers.

"We get to hear the new ideas from public and private research and ask questions," Williams said. "There is no dumb question about winter canola."

Williams and Gates were at the meeting to learn about new varieties as well as information to help with low pH soils, like those in their region.

The decision to try a new crop was one both made about three years ago. And, with each crop, Gates and Williams have improved their production and marketing techniques.

"I advise my neighbors to not jump into winter canola with both feet but, instead, plant 10 acres or so," Williams said. "You have to learn how to grow it and little by little you'll learn more and more."

The single thing they noticed, Gates said, was that winter canola isn't like winter wheat, and growers must change their mindsets about how they manage the crop.

"It can be more labor intensive than any other crop," Gates said. "You don't just drive by and check the field. You have to get out and walk into the field at critical times."

The key to trying a new crop and having a successful harvest is to share information, Stamm said.

"It was really great to have the grower panel here today share their success stories," Stamm said. Whether it's learning what crop inputs are needed for a successful harvest, or how and when to apply pesticides, producers learn best from other producers, he added.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.



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