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As biofuel becomes popular, is canola a feasible winter crop?

As bio-fuels gain in popularity, the oil content of crops feeding the industry becomes a huge factor. That's why canola, or rapeseed, has suddenly become a popular topic in the Mid-South.

Already struggling to find a steady source of oil to produce fuel, bio-fuel manufacturers are intrigued with canola's 38 to 39 percent oil content. By comparison, the oil content of soybeans is between 18 and 19 percent.

“On a per acre basis, the net oil content is much higher with canola,” says Robert Bacon, University of Arkansas small grains breeder. “We've been working with canola for 12 or 13 years. Before a new crop is adopted, the marketplace must want it. Now, canola is wanted and more farmers are paying attention.”

While Bacon believes canola can be successfully grown in Arkansas, what happens when it's put on large acreages will be much different than in his 20-foot plots.

“It'll be interesting to see if we run into any new problems (with expanding acreage). On test plots, our normal yields range between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds. The economists say the breakeven point, depending on inputs, is around 1,700 to 1,800 pounds. That means canola should be profitable for growers.”

Cropping issues

Another concern is timeliness during harvest. Canola is much more sensitive than wheat and is prone to shatter.

“You can lose your crop to that. It's not good to let wheat sit too long waiting for harvest, but there's more leeway (with wheat) than with canola. Growers now have very large farms. Even if a field needs to be harvested on Friday, it may have to wait until next Tuesday. That scenario is more dangerous with canola than with wheat.”

Is there a region of the state better suited to grow canola?

“We've been focusing on three locations — a function of logistics and funding more than anything else. Originally, we did some canola work here at Fayetteville (in northwest Arkansas). One reason is Fayetteville has the harshest winter in the state and we were interested in canola's hardiness. When we started research, there were rumblings hardiness was a trait that needed to be worked on.”

Since then, Bacon and colleagues haven't found hardiness a concern. The germ plasm is “more than capable” of handling an Arkansas winter.

Another test location is in the west part of the state in the Arkansas River Valley. The location is made up of fairly sandy soils.

“We can see how canola does in such loose soils. That brings me to another production concern: just getting a stand up. Canola seed is very, very small. With small seed, if you miss the planting depth by a half-inch, you're in trouble. Another crop won't have such trouble.”

The seeds are so small farmers can plant a lot without meaning to. Sometimes a field won't get a stand and then, the next year “will produce a beautiful canola stand. It'll almost look like it reseeded itself.

“But, again, the seed is so small the land must be worked well and the farmer needs to know what he's doing. That will likely translate into a few problems for farmers initially. My experience with any crop is that stand establishment is an art. You can tell people how to get a crop up but the farmer knows his land and how to work it and how best to get the soils firmed up.”

The third test location is in Marianna in east Arkansas on “mainstream Arkansas delta farmland. Over the last five or six years, that's where the majority of our research has been. We've gotten really good results there and it's been our highest yielding location.”

Bacon admits there haven't been enough growing locations yet to say, “‘This area of the state produces the best canola.’ My guess is that (canola's success) won't be tied to geography as much as soil type. My experience shows it will probably have more problems with wet soils than wheat does. It won't do as well in clays and low-lying areas. I think this crop can be grown all over the Mid-South. I don't think it will be in a niche geographically.”

Testing the waters

A few Arkansas producers are already preparing to plant small canola acreages. The fields will be the first actual production sites in the state since Bacon began his canola studies.

“Patriot BioFuels in Stuttgart, Ark., has worked with us to get a set of growers. Four or five have been lined up to produce about 20 acres. The idea is to get it into producers' hands, let them play around with the crop and see what happens.

Another bio-fuel manufacturer keen to check out canola is Eastman Chemical in Batesville, Ark.

“We want to explore oil crops (other than soybeans),” says Gary McDonald, Eastman's director. “Canola certainly fits that bill. Sunflowers are another possibility. Those wouldn't replace (soybeans) but would supplement what the state offers in terms of feed stock for bio-diesel production. To evaluate that feasibility, we're working with a group of farmers in Jackson and Independence counties on small-scale field trials this winter. Is it feasible? It's probably too early to say but we're certainly interested.”

Arkansas could follow Oklahoma in adopting the oil-rich crop.

“Oklahoma began on small acreage, much as we are, and then saw acreage skyrocket,” says Bacon. “Seeing that happen here assumes the bio-diesel plants maintain demand.”


What about double-cropping? Does canola act like wheat in such scenarios?

“We've been working on the breeding side so we haven't done studies asking, ‘What does it do behind rice or soybeans?’ But as far as the cropping season, we've tried to plant it a bit earlier than wheat — a week to 10 days.”

Most of the canola varieties mature slightly later than wheat, maybe five days. That extra five days may put “a little pressure on double-cropping but, to me, I don't think that's much of a difference.”

What about fertilizing canola? Is it best to use two shots as with wheat?

“Again, it's similar to wheat. As a rule of thumb, we put a bit more nitrogen on — 5 percent more, or so. Canola also needs more sulfur. You might consider ammonium sulfate to help take care of both needs.”

In his research work, Bacon tends to have wheat and canola in the same field. Both are fertilized together.

“Most folks think a split shot is a good idea for good distribution if nothing else.”

What about diseases and pests?

“That's the scariest thing. When you have a total of 4 acres in the state, pest problems tend to be minor. Put in a 100,000 acres and I'm betting a bunch of pests will bother the crop.”

There are several diseases known to hurt canola. The one Bacon has seen the most is sclerotinius stem rot which tends to be worse in wet soils. Another disease of concern is blackleg (Leptosphaeria maculans). Both diseases are soil-borne.


Experience with canola elsewhere “tells us you won't be able to grow canola in the same rotations as wheat. It can't be rotated annually. Most knowledgeable folks say canola is good for every third year.”

Assuming canola interest grows, “I envision Arkansas will see canola as another winter crop. Maybe you'll grow wheat one winter, fallow the next then canola the next. Or you might grow wheat two years and canola one.”

If you get ready to combine or haul canola, have a lot of duct tape on hand. Because the seed is so small, Bacon warns it's like hauling a load of coarse sand.

“A little crack in your combine or bob truck and you're in trouble — the seed will pour right through.”

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