Montana producers eye winter canola option

Montana farmers seeded 20,000 acres of winter canola this year, but some producers and crop advisers expect acres to increase 10-fold.  |  File photo

The crop gains popularity because it blooms in late May and early June, when temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees cooler

The town of Hardin, Montana, gets awfully hot and dry in July.

Temperatures of 33 to 36 C are commonplace and Hardin only receives 30 millimetres of rain in the entire month of July, on average.

Growing spring canola doesn’t make a lot of sense in Hardin, 50 kilometres east of Billings, or other parts of southern Montana, because the crop can’t handle the heat.

However, winter canola is gaining traction in the area because it blooms in late May and early June, when temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees cooler.

This year, Montana farmers seeded only 20,000 acres of winter canola, but some farmers and crop advisers expect acres to increase by 10-fold.

“I think it could easily get to a couple hundred thousand,” said Curt Droogsma, a district sales manager with Winfield United in Billings.

Winfield United, a subsidiary of the Land O’ Lakes co-operative, is a crop product and agronomy firm in the United States and Canada. Droogsma sells CroPlan winter canola seed, a Winfield United product, to farmers in the region.

More of his customers are experimenting with winter canola because they want a rotation crop to help control the disease and weed cycle in winter wheat.

“Those guys are pretty limited…. They haven’t found any other crops, as far as oilseeds, that will grow very well,” Droogsma said. “The guys that do it right are getting some big bushels and making money on their winter canola crop.”

A few winter canola crops have yielded 75 bushels per acre, Droogsma said, or 3,700 pounds per acre.

Hundreds of Montana farmers would like to have a second crop, even if it yielded 40 or 50 bu. per acre because winter wheat is the only option in parts of the state.

Many growers follow a winter wheat-fallow–winter wheat rotation.

“Our major (growing) region is called the Golden Triangle … (and) the region is still (more than) 40 percent fallow each year,” Perry Miller, an expert in dryland cropping systems at the University of Montana.

Growers in south-central Montana have tried spring canola, without much success.

“We typically have such strong summer droughts hitting around July 4 that spring canola often blooms well but sets very little seed …. (It) can be shriveled, low oil seed, with low harvest index (proportion of seed to total plant biomass),” he said. “Any fall-sown crop fits our spring-loaded moisture pattern better.”

Winter canola may be a better fit but Montana farmers need winter canola varieties with pod-shatter technology, Miller added.

“After another difficult harvest, I’ve swore off winter canola (research) until that trait appears in winter types.”

Some folks may be skeptical about winter canola, but some folks were also skeptical about pulse crops in Montana, Droogsma said.

About a decade ago, lentils and peas were novelty crops in Montana.

In 2018, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data, there were about 900,000 acres of peas and lentils in the state.

Droogsma remains bullish about winter canola, but he admitted the crop must overcome one major hurdle to succeed in the state — trucking costs.

Now, many growers haul their winter canola to North Dakota, Washington state or Alberta, which takes a major bite out of profits.

“In southern Montana, there have been no elevators buying canola,” he said. “We’re still working on getting some more elevators to buy it…. That’s been a hiccup.”

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