Shorter rotation advice shocks agronomists

Shorter rotation advice shocks agronomists

There is a big divide between two influential canola groups on the issue of crop rotations.

The Canola Council of Canada says more intensive rotations can be managed sustainably, but Joan Heath, past chair of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission, is uneasy with the suggestion.

“SaskCanola thinks differently,” she said during an interview at the group’s annual general meeting last week while she was still chair of the organization.

The council is no longer promoting a universal recommendation of a one-in-four-year rotation.

It says a one-size-fits-all approach no longer works and that tighter rotations may be appropriate on some farms. It is a significant policy departure for a group that has long warned growers about the dangers of tightening rotations.

The council recently announced it has set a new target of achieving 26 million tonnes of production by 2025.

In a document accompanying the announcement, the council said growing canola crops back-to-back results in a 20 percent reduction in yields, but research shows there is a recovery of yield potential with a one-year break between canola crops.

“Our best wisdom is changing, and growers are leading the way,” said the council.

Heath said there has been no such change in philosophy in Saskatchewan.

“At SaskCanola, we’re really uninterested in looking at that (production) target through the lens of tighter rotations,” she said.

“We remain firmly behind our Agriculture Canada scientists that tell us there’s a risk in shortening canola rotations.”

Some agronomists were startled by the council’s policy change, but it didn’t come as a surprise to Heath.

“Behind the scenes, we’ve been having conversations for months about what we’re all thinking about rotations,” she said.

Heath was pleased the council emphasized that getting more yield out of every seed through improved genomics and better agronomic practices is the main way to achieve its “bold” production target.

“I think the rotation piece was a pretty secondary message because I think that the plan did make a lot of effort to show that the increased production was not going to be on the back of shorter rotations,” she said.

“But they did reference what they were thinking (on rotations).”

Heath said there has been a lot of grower feedback on the council’s 26 million tonne target.

“They think it’s pretty high.”

Growers also thought it was a poor time to be telling farmers they need to produce another eight million tonnes of canola over the next 12 years.

“We’re faced with a massive crop that is posing all kinds of delivery and cash flow problems for farmers at the grassroots level,” said Heath.

“Right now, do we really think that they want to hear about bigger tonnage?”

Growers have piles of canola on their farms that they can’t move and are watching prices steadily erode.

“When you get all these things happening so closely together, it just doesn’t put them in a mood for that message. It doesn’t mean the message is wrong, necessarily,” said Heath.

“It’s just the timing: more tonnes at a time when farmers are struggling to deal with the tonnage they have.”

She also wonders if the new target is realistic. Some people point to the record 2013 harvest of 18 million tonnes as proof that new genetics will pave the way to 26 million tonnes in 2025.

“I don’t know if we have over-valued the potential of genetics and agriculture research and undervalued the impact of weather.”