Spring canola harvest looms

Harvesting canola in the spring can be frustrating. That means a lot of frustrated prairie canola producers will be climbing into combines in the next few months.

Based on industry estimates and data from Statistics Canada, western Canadian farmers left more than two million acres of canola in the field this winter. That includes an estimated 900,000 acres in Alberta and the Peace River area, about 200,000 acres in southwestern Manitoba, and a million acres in Saskatchewan, primarily in province’s east-central region.

Curtis Rempel, vice-president of crop production and innovation with the Canola Council of Canada, said it’s difficult to predict how much marketable canola will be salvaged from fields this spring.

Similarly, it’s nearly impossible to say what the quality of this year’s spring-harvested oilseeds will be.

“It’s hard to predict because there’s a lot of things that can impact the crop — the number of freeze-thaw events, the wind, the amount of snowfall and the amount of animal activity, either rodents or deer,” Rempel said.

“We know that the shatter tolerance trait can help to reduce yield losses … but that’s not bullet-proof either….

“We’re thinking that producers should anticipate yield losses, but it’s going to be quite variable from field to field.”

This isn’t the first time the western Canadian canola industry has faced a spring harvest.

In the fall of 2016, wet field conditions across much of the West forced prairie canola growers to leave nearly 1.2 million acres in the field over winter.

Landon Larsen of Aylsham, Sask., was one of those growers.

Saturated field conditions in the fall of 2016 forced him to leave more than 1,000 acres of canola out over winter.

It was late May before he got the crop off, and even then it was a struggle.

“The carrying capacity of the fields just wasn’t there,” he said.

“I believe it was May 25 before the ground could even carry the weight of our combines.”

Larsen described the spring harvest as a costly and frustrating exercise.

His advice to growers this year? Get on your combine as soon as you can. But when it’s time to seed the 2020 crop, focus on seeding instead.

“If you can get out there before you should be seeding, then I would, but when it’s time to go seeding, just leave your canola and go seed everything else.”

In other words, don’t jeopardize this year’s crop by spending too much time on last year’s wreckage.

Larsen estimated that the canola he harvested in the spring of 2017 would have made a 55-bushel per acre crop if it had come off in the fall. The following spring, it yielded about 18 bu.

“We lost a lot to shatter and we lost weight too. You didn’t really get a full load when you filled up the Super B,” he said.

“The grade also went from a No. 1 to a No. 3 or sample, but we were fortunate that Viterra was buying as much canola as they could get that spring so what we did sell, we got a decent price for.”

Seeds from the crop were grey and discoloured. When rolled out, many were off-colour.

Larsen said marketing off-grade canola might be more difficult this year than it was in 2017, when demand was higher and domestic canola stocks were lower.

Producer Justin Schwab of Camrose, Alta., agreed. He also wondered if this year’s mild winter weather will result in greater yield loss and more quality deterioration.

Schwab combined about 400 acres of canola in the spring of 2017.

Although it was discoloured, it all rolled out nicely and he was able to sell most of it as a No. 1.

“It took quite a pounding from the weather in the fall … but as I recall that winter was fairly consistently cold,” Schwab said.

“Visually, it looked horrible. It was kind of odd-looking stuff. It looked quite grey and dusty almost … but when we rolled it out, it all seemed to be pretty good.”

“I can’t tell you exactly how much (yield) we lost … but I would say anywhere from 10 percent in some spots up to 25 or 30 percent in other spots.”

There were mice in the swaths but there was no visible excrement in the harvested seed, he added.

Rempel said the canola industry learned some interesting lessons from the spring harvest of 2017.

Based on a study conducted by the Canadian Grain Commission that year, 55 of 161 spring-harvested canola samples that were submitted (34.2 percent) were graded as No. 1.

Another 41 samples (25.5 percent) were graded No. 2, 33 samples (20.5 percent) graded No. 3 and 32 samples (19.9 percent) graded Sample.

The CGC is collecting samples of spring-harvested canola again this year. Details of the program can be viewed online here.

The commission’s 2017 report on spring-harvested canola can be viewed here. (PDF format)

Rempel cautioned that the findings of the CGC’s 2017 survey may differ significantly from the finding of its 2020 survey.

He encouraged growers to take a close look at what they have in the field, make a determination of its value as early as possible, and provide samples to multiple buyers.

If growers have doubts about whether a crop is worth combining, they can collect a representative sample from different parts of a field without combining the entire area.

“Take a good representative sample of your canola, get more than one buyer’s opinion and send a sample to the grain commission,” he said.

“It will take some legwork … but I think you might be surprised. Again, 2017 isn’t a predictor of 2019… because the conditions were somewhat different, but 34 percent of the samples collected went No. 1 in 2017.”

A list of buyers that deal in off-grade canola can be viewed on the canola council’s website here.

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