Models show canola could work on central Great Plains

Unconventional crop | U.S. researchers explore adding crop to rotations

Canola doesn’t usually flourish in hot, dry climates, but U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists think spring canola can be successfully grown in Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas.

David Nielsen, a USDA agronomist in Akron, Colorado, has developed a computer simulation model demonstrating that spring canola could be a profitable crop in the central Great Plains of the United States.

The model, which accounted for weather data, various soil moisture conditions at seeding and other environmental factors, allowed Nielsen and his colleagues to determine that canola generated enough yield for farmers to turn a profit, even during times of adverse soil conditions.

“Simulations produced positive average net returns for five sites — Champion, Nebraska, Garden City, Kansas, McCook, Nebraska, Sidney, Nebraska, and Tribune, Kansas — … when only 25 percent of (normal) soil water was available for crop use at planting,” the USDA said in a release.

“When 75 percent of the soil water was available for crop use at planting, the model indicated that six of the sites had more than a 70 percent probability of producing a canola seed yield of at least 900 pounds per acre.”

Nebraska and Colorado won’t produce the same yields as North Dakota because too much water is lost to evapotranspiration in the hot, arid climate, but Nielsen said the computer study and plot trials in Akron, Colo., indicate it is a feasible cropping option.

“The next step is really whether a farmer is willing … to take (a) risk and plant this on his own ground.”

Nielsen evaluated the potential of spring canola because many farmers in the region are locked into a wheat-fallow rotation.

“Getting a different crop into the wheat system is one of the primary objectives,” he said, adding the canola could also be used to produce biodiesel.

“There are some farmers who would like to produce their own fuel. With not a great deal of expense, you can get a kit to convert a diesel tractor to run straight vegetable oil.”

Farmers in Colorado, western Kansas and western Nebraska have expressed interest in canola, but most ask Nielsen the same question: why not winter canola?

“That of course is the big question,” he said. “Why are you messing with spring canola because … its grain filling period (will run) into the really hot July.”

However, Nielsen said the region’s proximity to the Rocky Mountains increases the likelihood of a mid-winter mild spell, which can be disastrous for winter canola.

“The problem is this unique area of the central Great Plains (is) that winter canola will typically encounter some pretty warm temperatures in January,” he said.

“It will break dormancy, the snow will melt … then there will be this blast of sometimes sub zero Fahrenheit weather that damages the plant.”

Plot trials in the region have shown that winter canola has a 50-50 chance of surviving the winter, Nielsen said.

Winter canola might not be suitable for western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, but the story is different in Kansas.

Winter canola has become a Cinderella crop in southern Kansas in the last several years as acres increase every year.

Mike Stamm, a Kansas State University winter canola breeder, said its popularity is spreading northward as varieties improve.

“We’ve had variety trials in north-central Kansas, about 15 miles from Nebraska, the last few years and it’s been the best canola in the state.”

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