What is the secret to growing huge canola crops?
The average canola yield in Canada has stubbornly remained in the 30-bushel-per-acre range for years. Yet some producers in all growing regions of the Prairies are routinely doubling this annual average; a few are now even starting to triple it. What are these canola kings doing right that the rest aren’t?
“In my opinion the single biggest thing they are doing different is they’ve made a decision that they are going to try to get bigger yields,” says Clinton Jurke, director of agronomy with the Canola Council of Canada in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. “It comes down to a change in attitude. Producers who get these high yields view their canola inputs as an investment that will increase their profitability and not as an expense that needs to be cut to reduce costs.”
Top finisher. Jim Herder from Sylvan Lake, Alberta, routinely grows some of the highest canola yields in Canada. It’s common to find his name among the top finishers of Dupont-Pioneer’s annual Canola Yield Challenge. One of his fields placed second nationally in 2015 with a yield of 84.3.
Herder was looking forward to finally cracking the 100-bushel mark in 2016 before wet fall weather caused harvest delays. Plants in his competition field had 88 pods on the main stem. At the time of writing (late October) it was still in the field waiting to be combined.
“The way I look at it is we have to push the envelope a little bit if we want to stay a little bit more competitive than everybody else,” Herder says. “I’m not shy about using nutrients. We are trying for maximum yields on every field every year.”
Herder uses manure from his feedlot operation and from a nearby hog farm plus nutrient-rich waste from a nearby ethanol plant to provide his base fertility levels. Every field is soil tested in the fall, and he works closely with a local agronomist to tailor to each field’s fertilizer needs.
There really is no magic pill that will give you a big jump in your canola yield, Jurke says. Spending five dollars on a micronutrient package won’t help you if you are only going to apply 60 pounds of nitrogen. You should be putting on 120 pounds if you want to have yields in the 60-bushel range. After that your results will be determined by whatever your next limiting factor is.
“Canola is a valuable crop and there are a lot of snake oils being sold that perhaps aren’t providing as much value as they are claimed to,” Jurke says. “We’d like to see growers be a little bit more skeptical about the information that’s presented to them.”
Right seed. Getting top yields starts by selecting the right seed for your farm, Herder says. One advantage to having a reputation for growing big crops is all the seed companies are eager to have him test their latest and greatest offerings. Herder grows half-mile long, 50-foot test strips of five or six varieties every year to compare their performance against each other and to baseline check plots. The final results determine which varieties he grows the following year.
“What better way is there to see which varieties perform best under your management techniques and climatic conditions than growing test plots?” Herder asks. “They don’t take a lot of time and they give you a huge amount of knowledge. Test numbers can be skewed quite a bit, but if you are doing your own plots, you know the reasons behind your results.”
Ultimately 80% of your yields are determined by your weather, Herder says. His area has an almost perfect climate for canola. Still he does everything he can to optimize his yields on all 1,200 of his canola acres. Every acre gets a fungicide every year, and he continually monitors for insects.
Details matter if you really want to push yields, Jurke says. Are you seeding at the optimal time and depth? Are spraying applications timely?
“Machinery settings matter too,” Jurke says. “Get out and spend a bit of time behind your seed drill and make sure you are placing it at the right depth. Just taking a few minutes at harvest time to verify your combine settings by placing pans out in the field can save up to five bushels per acre. Doing all the little things right will really add up in the end.”