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Canola has the potential to improve wheat crop

"I think the potential is there and it would benefit the whole wheat industry as a whole," said Jeff Scott, a canola producer from Pond Creek, Okla., and president of the Great Plains Canola Association.

By Doug Rich

There is tremendous potential for canola in the southern Great Plains and the biggest beneficiary may be the region's wheat crop.

In an area where continuous wheat and cattle have dominated for decades, canola could improve the wheat crop and improve producers' bottom lines. Although canola can be grown in eastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and even Arkansas, it is really being pushed in traditional wheat growing areas where crop rotation would be most beneficial.

"There are places in Oklahoma that have been continuous wheat for a lot of years," Mark Boyles, Canola Project Coordinator at Oklahoma State University, said. "When you are in a continuous monoculture crop, you will have disease, insect and a lot of grassy weed problems. If you switch out to winter canola, especially if you use Roundup Ready varieties, you can clean those fields up in about two years."

Canola project

The goal of the Canola Project in Oklahoma is to improve the quality and quantity of wheat grown in the state by using canola as a rotation crop. Boyles said they have focused their attention on the western side of the state. Canola variety trials have been conducted in eastern Oklahoma near Miami and the crop did very well. But eastern Oklahoma and eastern Kansas producers have other crops they can use in rotation like soybeans and grain sorghum.

Jeff Scott, a canola producer from Pond Creek, Okla., and president of the Great Plains Canola Association, has seen dramatic improvement in his wheat fields since he began planting canola six years ago.

"We are continuous wheat and cattle down here and we started running into real problems with downy brome, Japanese brome, and various grassy weeds that cheat herbicides just won't touch," Scott said. "It will knock out the true cheats but not these other brome species."

Scott began no-till planting wheat about 10 years ago and he was seeing an increase in disease problems, also.

He had tried rotating to soybeans and grain sorghum, but his area is usually too dry to make those crops work. Then he heard about canola, a winter-grown crop and a broadleaf that would break up weed and disease cycles.

"I have been well satisfied with what it does for our ground and our bottom line," Scott said.

Scott has seen yield increases on wheat following canola of 20 percent to 50 percent. He attributes this to a number of factors including less dockage due to cleaner wheat fields, better soil conditions, a carry over of nitrogen from the canola crop, and the natural boost that comes with crop rotation.

"I am first, and foremost, a wheat farmer and this gives me another tool to increase my wheat yields," Scott said. "State wheat yields in Oklahoma have increased a whole bushel per acre in the last 100 years. It is time to try something different and I think a rotation with winter canola is the thing that makes it work."

Canola is planted and harvested at about the same time as wheat and producers can use the same equipment for the most part. Some producers swath or push down the crop before harvest which may require the purchase of additional equipment. The cost of production is about one-third more than wheat but the returns are higher. Boyles said canola does require a little higher level of management than wheat production.

Big advantage

The biggest advantage to canola is that there are no crossover diseases or insects between the wheat and canola.

"Canola breaks the weed and disease cycle and it is a known bio-fumigant," Boyles said. "It knocks out nematodes that have been building up in the soil. It does not control them but it provides some beneficial effects for the soil."

Instead of a shallow root system like wheat, canola has a deep taproot system that cracks the soil. This lets more moisture into the soil in the winter months and makes the soil mellower when it comes out of canola and goes into wheat.

Canola is a valuable crop with good markets for oil and meal. Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City has been crushing cottonseed for over 64 years and last year they began crushing canola. One reason for their interest in canola is a reduction in cotton acres.

"Not so much in Oklahoma but we own three facilities in the mid-south region where cotton acreage has decreased over 60 percent in the last two years," Brandon Winters, Oilseed Procurement Manager, said.

Winters said canola acreage is still not where it needs to be but there is a lot more interest.

"Universities and a lot of big companies are getting involved and trying to promote canola acres in this area," Winters said.

Winters said they could pull canola from northern Texas, southern Kansas, and all over Oklahoma.

"We are getting calls from producers in south Texas who are interested in canola and sunflowers," Winters said. "We really don't know how big our area could be."

At their facility in Oklahoma City, Producers Cooperative Oil Mill is permitted to crush 600 to 700 tons of canola on a daily basis. Winters estimated that they crushed nearly 9,000 tons of canola in 2008.

Winters said they get 850 pounds of oil and 1,100 pounds of meal from a ton of canola seed. Their original idea was to sell the oil to food companies but most of it has been shipped to a biodiesel plant in Texas. Canola meal can be fed to a wide range of animals. Canola meal is used in lots of products from dog food to frozen dinners. Winters said the canola meal they produce is 38 percent protein.

Typically, canola prices run $2 to $3 per bushel more than wheat. Canola peaked out at $15 a bushel in 2008. Canola can yield anywhere from 400 pounds to 3,500 pounds per acre. If a producer usually grows 35-bushel wheat, his fields should be able to produce 1,800 pounds of canola.

"I think we will see an increase in acreage for both canola and sunflowers," Winters said. "If just two percent of the wheat acres in Oklahoma were planted to canola, this would give us enough canola to crush year round."

Scott said 25,000 to 30,000 acres of canola were planted last year and there are about 55,000 to 60,000 acres in the ground this year. Four new varieties were introduced this year that have improved winter survivability, which was a big problem in some areas.

Scott said most years there are 15 to 16 million acres of wheat in Oklahoma and Kansas and, if just 10 percent of that acreage were planted to canola in rotation, there would be the potential for 1.5 million acres of canola.

"I think the potential is there and it would benefit the wheat industry as a whole," Scott said.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.



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