Canola squeezed out of European farm fields

Canola is fading as a crop choice across most of Europe.

Although the decline is gradual, canola economics are worsening for most farmers, crop management experts said at an international conference.

“The margins that farmers were enjoying are now a lot less,” said Tom Arthey, an English farm consultant, during Agri Benchmark’s Global Cash Crop Conference held June 26 in Winnipeg.

Representatives from Poland and Germany reported farmers are backing away from canola as weed control costs, insect damage and environmental regulations squeeze profitability out of the crop.

Those pressures include:

  • Greater insect damage with bans on neonicotinoids.
  • Fertility challenges with European Union restrictions on fertilizers.
  • The spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

The weed pressure doesn’t just hurt canola crops in the field. Chemical resistant grassy weeds can grow within a canola crop and then drain the yields of following wheat crops.

With wheat being the most profitable crop for many northern European farmers, anything that hurts wheat yields is serious.

“You have to look at it on a whole-farm approach,” said Arthey.

Herbicide-resistant blackgrass has become a particular problem, damaging wheat yields and pushing farmers to spray in the autumn.

The autumn spraying discourages fall seeding, which is when canola is seeded in Western Europe, and encourages spring crops.

Farmers consider the impact on their wheat crops when assessing their “break” crops, which is how canola is seen in much of Europe. Canola hasn’t generally been the farmer’s most profitable crop, but it has allowed them to break from cereal grains within a rotation, lowering weed and insect pressure in subsequent crops.

With herbicide-resistant weeds now surviving within canola crops, that rotational advantage is lessening.

“It was a win-win situation,” said Arthey.

“You could rest your land from wheat with a break crop with which you didn’t lose money.”

Now farmers see weeds surviving, insects like flea beetles hard to control, and a high management crop seeming like a lot of effort for little return.

Arthey said English farmers will probably seed two to three percent fewer canola acres per year as its frequency is reduced. Already it has dropped among most from a one-in-two or one-in-three to one-in-four or less.

A similar trend is seen on the continent, even though farmers don’t have great alternatives. Canola is still a major crop, but its competitive edge is disappearing.

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