Preaching about canola rotations falls on deaf ears

Question: How do you get a canola grower to roll his eyes?

Answer: Start talking about three- or four-year canola rotations.

In October, the Canola Council of Canada hosted an agronomy forum in Winnipeg. In one session agronomists and scientists discussed for about two hours the challenge of managing blackleg, a fungal disease.

During 120 minutes, it was seldom mentioned that tight crop rotations, like canola-wheat-canola or canola-canola-canola, amplify the risk and effects of blackleg.

Moving to a three-year or four-year canola rotation wasn’t discussed in the session, despite research showing it reduces blackleg incidence and severity.

Greg Sekulic, a canola council agronomist in Alberta, said the council hasn’t pushed longer rotations for a couple years because growers show little interest in the message.

In fact, in some cases it ends conversations between agronomists and producers.

“In light of the fact that rotations became what they were, over the bulk of the Prairies anyway… we decided it would be better for us to help mitigate the risk of these type of rotations, than to insist on a practice that 80 percent our growers weren’t following anyway,” said Sekulic, who leads the sustainability file with the council.

“Seeing how that (longer) rotation isn’t happening to large ex-tent, anyways, what we’re trying to do is help growers manage those risks.”

The canola council once preached three- or four-year rotations, but that changed a couple years ago when the organization announced its goal of producing 26 million tonnes of the oilseed annually by 2025.

Council president Patti Miller said in January 2014 that canola rotation is a producer’s choice.

“There’s no one global recommendation. It’s about what’s right for an individual farmer.”

Murray Hartman, Alberta Agriculture oilseed specialist, does talk to growers about longer canola rotations. But he admitted it’s a difficult message to deliver.

He compared it to telling Alberta drivers to drive the speed limit on Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton. Everyone likely understands that driving 130 km-h on a winter night is riskier than 110 km-h. But the “slow down” message eventually becomes pointless.

“If you always (said) … only go 110 on the highway, everybody would just tune you out.”

Neil Harker, an Agriculture Canada research scientist who published a study in 2014 on canola rotations, yield and disease, said producers may not want to hear about three- or four-year canola rotations, but the canola council shouldn’t abandon the message.

“If they feel like they’re not having any traction, they should do it anyways,” he said. “Anybody that does research and technology transfer knows that this (tight rotation) could potentially be a bigger issue than it is right now, (which) could hurt a lot of people.”

Harker said blackleg and other canola diseases might become unmanageable. He compared it to the southern U.S., where glypho-sate resistant weeds have made it nearly impossible to grow cotton in parts of Arkansas and other states.

“This is my opinion, but (canola) growers are eventually going to come and say; ‘why didn’t you give us this message more strongly,’ ” he said. “I think we’re pushing risk, as much or more than we ever have.”

Sekulic said growers and agronomists should know that longer rotations and increased diversity are preferable and more sustainable. He backed Harker’s comment that tight rotations are a legitimate threat.

“To hear Neil say that all factors remaining the same (it) not being sustainable, that wouldn’t surprise me at all. And I would agree with it.”

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