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Biofuel link invigorating interest in canola

Now tall and festooned with yellow blooms, Arkansas' scattered canola fields are moving closer to harvest.

“There are a few more people growing canola in the state this year,” says Robert Bacon, University of Arkansas professor of crop breeding/genetics. “We're actually trying to get all the growers together for a field day or a tour.”

There are several fields of canola around Holly Grove in east Arkansas and another in Mississippi County in the northeast. Other fields — including some around north-central Arkansas and others around Stuttgart — are being grown with the encouragement of biofuel operations keen to see how the oilseed crop might work as a feedstock.

This is the twelfth year Bacon has grown canola in the state. It seems to be picking up steam and interest.

“This year, it's been good to see what the crop does at all the different sites. For years we've been running tests around Marianna and in the Arkansas River Valley. This year, there are not only test plots but, at the Stuttgart research station, a seed increase of a line (several farmers are growing). There, we have a block of canola planted alongside the highway along with a larger field — 5 or 6 acres — further back.”

Several test fields near Newport may have been planted too late. “We established a window for planting based on what we'd experienced previously. But we hadn't planted that area (north-central Arkansas) before and we probably need to narrow that window up to make planting a bit earlier.”

Last fall, Jeff Hornbeck planted 69 acres of canola in a soybean field.

“We had a lot of straw in the field,” says the DeWitt, Ark., producer. “The information we'd gotten on canola said the crop needs a good, clean seedbed. Having one would have definitely helped since we didn't get quite the stand we'd have liked.”

Considering the less than stellar stand, “we've ended up with a pretty fair crop. Especially since we didn't really know what we were doing.”

The crop did experience some unexpected damage. The source is still unclear.

“It appeared to be chemical. That reduced the population even more and we worked up one end of the field because it was pointless to carry it through. The rest of the field was worth taking to harvest.

“What's unfortunate is we won't be able to see the crop's full potential. It would have been nice to see what it can really do.”

Hornbeck, who says the crop needs to be planted in well-drained soils, began noticing the suspected chemical damage early on. “We thought it was just damp spots in the field. But it kept getting worse and our crop consultant pulled samples and carried them to the university.”

The Hornbeck field was planted in two varieties: Wichita from Kansas and a line developed by the University of Arkansas. The damage seemed worse in the Kansas variety.

“It's been an unusual crop to grow. It's different than anything we're used to. Until it was ready to head, it looked like a big field of turnip greens.”

But when the canola began heading out, “it took off. When it gets ready, it'll put out a shoot that's 2.5 or 3 feet tall almost overnight. The bloom begins at the top of that shoot and seed pods develop from the blooms.”

Aphids have been a problem in much Mid-South wheat. Is the same true for canola? “We do have aphids, a lot of them. But they haven't reached threshold numbers. The thing is they're still in the lower portion of the plant where the leaves are. But the leaves are a long way from the fruit. It takes a lot of aphids to reach threshold.”

Through his years of research, Bacon says canola is typically sprayed for aphids every third or fourth year.

Hornbeck hopes the canola will be ready for harvest the same time as wheat. “I hope that's the case because if it comes up later we may not get to double-crop soybeans behind it. And if we can't double-crop, that will certainly lower its attractiveness.”

Whatever is harvested will likely be saved for seed. “This year was experimental,” says Jon Hornbeck, Jeff's brother and a principal of Hornbeck Seed. “We're trying to build seed stocks and aren't worrying about crushing it.”

There has been a lot of interest in the crop, says Jeff. “That's the case with anything new. People are asking a lot of questions. But that doesn't mean anything if it doesn't do well at harvest time. We'll see.”

Based on their experience with canola this year, Jon doesn't believe “anyone will jump in and plant 500 to 600 acres. Folks will probably dip their toes in with 30 or 40 acres to see what they can do with it.

“I hope harvesting it is easier than we think it'll be. As small as the seed is, it'll be a challenge. But we're supposed to be able to cut it with the combines we already have. The operation manual has a setting for canola.”

As for next year, Jeff says he'll probably plant canola on fallow ground. “I'd like to see what'll happen with it there and not worry about the double-cropping.”

Before any big acres go into it, there's research to do, he says. “We've got to have some more information on planning, planting and things like this suspected chemical situation. Are certain varieties better around here? There are all kinds of questions.”

Bacon and colleagues are trying to provide answers.

“One concern I have right now is the same thing wheat farmers are worried about: cold weather,” said Bacon just prior to Easter weekend. “We've had an exceptionally warm spring and are about to hit freezing temperatures. It will be interesting to see how the canola reacts.

“It shouldn't be this cold at this advanced stage of the crop. It's a bit of a mystery how this will shake out. It probably depends on how cold it is, and for how long.”

Overall, the state's crop has performed well, as Bacon expected. “Canola has plenty of potential for the state but it isn't something that can be slapped into the ground and left.

“Of the fields I've seen — provided the freeze doesn't hurt us too badly — they'll probably cut around 2,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds per acre. The breakeven point is probably in the neighborhood of 1,800 pounds. So the crop should be profitable and that excites me.”

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