Dakota Farmer

Why farmers are swapping some soybeans for canola

Profits and soil health drive decision to plant canola over soybeans in the Midwest.

5 Min Read
field of canola
SWAPPING CROPS: Farmers in the Red River Valley are finding success by adding canola into their cropping rotations, replacing soybeans.Getty Images

At a Glance

  • Alternative crops like canola often have higher profit margins and lower inputs.
  • Veteran and first-time canola growers discuss why they swapped from soybeans.

In the United States, soybeans play second fiddle to only corn. So why are some farmers swapping their soybeans in favor of untraditional canola? The answer might surprise you.

David Swenson, who farms between Caledonia, N.D., and Shelly, Minn., says the 2024 season will be the first time he swaps some soybean acres for canola. “We had some soybean fields we couldn’t get over that 30- to 35-bushel beans, and for whatever reason, we’ve been struggling,” he says. “We thought about what else we could do to get a little bit more of an income there.”

While Swenson is new to canola, Steve Rodke of Hawley, Minn., has been planting the crop for the last decade. Rodke says his operation was “getting top-heavy in soybeans.” About 10 years ago, his banker during an annual review encouraged him to look at other crops “that might make the financials look better.”

The canola benefit

Rodke had raised canola in the 1980s, but low prices turned him away from the oilseed. Revisiting the idea with his banker, they plugged 400 to 500 acres of canola into the equation.

“It turned the bottom line to the plus side,” Rodke says. “So we threw it in there, and it’s been a mainstay ever since for 10 years now.”

For his operation, Rodke devotes 662 acres to canola, 600 acres to corn, 1,000 to soybeans, 400 to wheat and 170 to alfalfa.

Besides canola improving his balance sheet, Rodke likes where it lands on the harvest calendar — in September rather than October. “We have enough October crops,” he says.

Steve Rodke

For Swenson, the higher profit margins combined with some difficult ground were the drivers of his decision to plant canola. “Our agronomist threw out the idea,” he says. “He had some growers up by Crookston [Minn.] that had good luck with canola, and we had never really thought about it, but then decided to give it a try this year.”

Craig Hanson, area manager for BASF covering North Dakota and Minnesota, says many growers look for a cropping change due to finances. “When traditional crops become unprofitable, that’s when growers start to look at alternative crops,” he explains. “In North Dakota, it’s been more of a challenge with soybeans on tougher ground with iron chlorosis [and] poor water drainage. Alkali soils can really wreak havoc on the overall soybean yield.”

Due to new genetics’ adaptability, canola has been one of those alternative crops that growers are turning to, Hanson says. “We’ve seen big growth with canola, and the reason why is because these newer varieties, like our InVigor 300 Series, has made these varieties able to move farther south into warmer areas — that 20 years ago the older genetics would get hurt by the heat.”

These changes in genetics combined with the ability to use existing machinery have allowed farmers to switch to this untraditional crop. “The good thing for the growers is that they can pretty much use their air seeders or planters they already use,” Hanson says.

Agronomic management

While canola was swathed in the past, growers now can minimize modifications on equipment to add in the crop. “They’ll have to do little modifications around the seed, as it’s a small seed. But they can use their traditional combine or header come harvest,” Hanson says. “So, it’s a good alternative with these newer varieties that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

On Rodke’s farm, he chisel-plows the canola ground once the crop is removed, and the earlier harvest allows for regrowth, providing ground cover. With the lack of snow last winter, he saw the benefit of that cover. “The soybean ground up here blew quite a bit,” he says. “The wheat ground and the canola ground did not blow. I don’t like blowing soil.”

This year, the canola will follow last year’s wheat and soybeans. “The hardest part about raising canola is getting it out of the ground,” Rodke says.

Canola seed is planted an inch deep into soil that is prone to drying out, so Rodke adds 10 gallons of water per acre in the furrow with the planter. For corn, he adds 3 gallons each of fertilizer and water. And for soybeans, he adds 1 gallon of fertilizer and 5 gallons of water.

“My corn planter’s got a 770-gallon tank on it, so I might as well use it,” Rodke says. “I did it last year, and it [canola] came out of the ground really fast.”

Hanson says canola needs minimal inputs, allowing for further cost savings. “Canola is fiercely competitive,” he says. “It usually only takes one chemical application, typically there’s not a preemerge used. And it shades the ground to cover the weeds. You’re probably using a fungicide treatment to be really profitable. On a per-acre basis, the herbicide program is certainly a lot less.”

As with any crop, canola growers need to stay on top of weed and insect pressure, and Rodke credits Dave Grafstrom from the University of Minnesota with walking his fields.

Grafstrom suggested using a preemergent application of Treflan, followed by 29 ounces of Liberty for broadleaf weeds. When the crop is 10% to 30% flowering, Rodke applies Endura to keep white mold at bay. Grafstrom also warned Rodke to keep an eye out for flea beetles.

Right before harvest, Rodke applies Roundup and Sharpen, “which uniforms out the crop to combine.”

Canola markets

A crop’s marketability is a deciding factor in adding it to the rotation. Hanson says that markets are close by for growers in the valley. “They can certainly presell, price and sell canola before it’s planted, before it’s hauled in just like every other commodity,” he says. “I think farmers will find that it is pretty much like the rest of their crops. It’s really up to the individual grower.

Rodke sells his canola to Cargill in West Fargo, N.D., which is about 25 miles from his farm, or to Northern Sun in Enderlin, N.D., which is about an hour and fifteen minutes away, and says that marketability is a benefit to growing canola.

The decision to replace a tried-and-true crop with an alternative is something that growers should consult with their agronomists before deciding. For Rodke and Swenson, they continue to reap the benefits of their decision to swap canola into their cropping rotation. Will your farm fare the same?

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About the Author(s)

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.

McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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