Prairie farmers have had plenty of things to fret about during the soggy harvest of 2019.
Their latest stress point might be the condition of unharvested canola.
As of late last week, a large amount of this year’s canola crop was still in the field.
Based on provincial estimates, nearly 15 million acres of Western Canada’s 20.8 million acre canola crop (more than 70 percent) was still waiting to be harvested as of Oct 1.
According to Daryl Beswitherick at the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), the lateness of this year’s canola harvest has delayed submissions to the commission’s harvest sample program.
As of Oct. 3, only 273 canola samples had been graded through the program, compared to almost 700 at the same time last year.
“We actually haven’t seen that many (canola samples) yet … but so far what we’ve seen is pretty good.”
Beswitherick said the vast majority of canola samples received so far have made the top grade.
Oilseed content in the samples graded so far are in the range of normal, added Veronique Barthet, a canola expert at the CGC.
As of Oct. 4, average oil content was 43 percent for Manitoba samples, 44.5 percent for Saskatchewan samples and 42 percent for Alberta samples.
Barthet cautioned that the number of samples received to date is small, so quality data available may not be indicative of the prairie canola crop as a whole.
Anecdotally, there are reports that the size and quality of this year’s canola crop may have been compromised by dry weather and atypical growing conditions.
Growers who spoke with The Western Producer last week said canola seed sizes are smaller than normal and thousand kernel seed weights will be lower than expected.
Smaller seed size combined with pod shattering could impact overall yields, supporting farmer claims that actual yields are falling short of growers’ expectations and industry estimates.
There are also concerns about high dockage levels, green seed counts and sprouting.
Angela Brackenreed, an agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada, said the council has been taking calls from growers concerned about canola seeds sprouting in the pod.
“I have seen it myself and (have) talked to producers about it,” she said.
“How common is it? Generally speaking and historically speaking, not very (common).”
“At this point, I’m still trying to get a handle on this.”
Brackenreed said she hasn’t heard any concerns about seed size but she acknowledged that quite a few regions across the Prairies were significantly impacted by drought conditions, a scenario that could influence seed development.
In terms of harvest progress, it’s not unusual for canola — the most valuable agricultural crop on the Prairies — to be harvested last, especially when wet harvest conditions are conducive to sprouting and bleaching in other crops.
Oilseeds are generally less prone to weather-related degradation than wheat, barley and pulses.
Under damp harvest conditions, many farmers are therefore inclined to harvest cereals first and oilseeds later.
But a “leave-the-canola-until-last” strategy is not without its risks, said Brackenreed.
The likelihood of pod shattering, pod drop, mould, sprouting and general degradation can be expected to increase as the harvest drags on, she said.
“There absolutely are some risks,” said Brackenreed.
“First off, every single day we’re getting closer to winter, and I don’t think it would be anyone’s intention to leave this crop in the field over winter, so that’s Risk No. 1.
“Risk No. 2 is that like any plant, the goal of (canola) is to reproduce and shed its offspring…,” she continued.
“So, the longer the crop sits out there, the more deteriorated it becomes, the more vulnerable it is to environmental conditions, and the more likely it will be to shatter or drop its pods.”
In addition to yield and markets, canola quality could be a factor in determining the overall value of this year’s canola crop
There are several grading factors that can lead to grade and value discounts in harvested canola.
A list of primary grade determinants and grading factors for canola can be found online at bit.ly/2IiPdOz and bit.ly/2oQzcIw.
Brackenreed and Beswitherick said it’s too early to make conclusive statements about the overall quality of this year’s canola crop.
What is certain is that the risk of grades will deteriorate if swathed or standing canola crops continue to be exposed to variable weather conditions.
Ashton Trawin, a grain and oilseed producer from the Melfort, Sask., area, said he was surprised to find canola seeds sprouting in a field that had been swathed just four or five days earlier.
Trawin estimated that the proportion of sprouted seeds in the field will only amount to one or two percent of the sample.
That amount of sprouting should not be enough to affect grade, but the presence of sprouted canola seeds in the swath was an unsettling discovery nonetheless.
According to the Canadian Grain Commission’s grain grading guide, canola samples with less than five percent sprouted material will still make the top grade, as long as other degrading factors such as heated seeds or distinctly green seeds are not evident.
Sprouted canola, heated seeds and green seeds are all assessed when calculating total damage in a canola sample.
The maximum threshold for total damage in No. 1 canola is five percent with heated seeds not to exceed 0.1 percent and green seeds not to exceed 2.0 percent.
The threshold in No. 2 canola is 12 percent total damage and the maximum threshold for No. 3 is 25 percent.
According to Trawin, heavy morning fogs may have contributed to sprouting, particularly on plants that were already dead ripe prior to swathing.
“We were also getting quite hot during the day, hotter than normal at 25 C or 30 C … so I believe what was happening was with the moisture and fog dampening everything and then the hotter temperatures during the day, it would have caused some sprouting … whereas if the (daytime) temperatures had stayed lower, then the likelihood of sprouting, I would assume, would have been lessened,” he said.
Variable crop staging, caused by late or uneven germination due to drought, may have increased the sprouting risk, he added.
“It is likely that the more mature canola that was swathed was the canola that was showing the sprouting, as opposed to the stuff that hadn’t quite cured yet.”
With so much canola left in the field, Brackenreed said growers will be eager to resume harvest operations as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
But she cautioned growers to pay close attention to post-harvest management, as the potential for spoilage in binned canola will be greater than normal.
“Really, this entire fall, we haven’t had conditions that are conducive to doing much drying at all in the bin with natural aeration, so I would first really encourage people to be monitoring diligently ….”
“We’ve had lots of canola taken off at higher moisture levels and it’s been a challenge to dry it down much.
“Even if we are harvesting dry grain that we would tend to recognize as fairly safe in the bin, we now have much more mould, and other saprophytes growing there, any sprouts and potential green seeds, which all elevate our storage risks significantly.”