Western Canadian canola yields were decent in 2020, but they might have been phenomenal if not for an intense heat wave in July that reduced yield potential in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Clint Jurke, agronomy director with the Canola Council of Canada, said heat blasting during the important flowering stage was the top factor that negatively impacted western Canadian canola yields in 2020.
Other factors included shallow-rooted fields in parts of the eastern Prairies (the result of ample soil moisture early in the growing season) and saturated field conditions in the Peace River region, northwestern Saskatchewan and areas of Alberta north of Highway 16.
“Each fall, our team of agronomy specialists across the Prairies examines the major yield-robbing factors for the year,” said Jurke.
“This review … is an important part of how we stay on top of the latest challenges and the key opportunities to help protect yield through improved agronomic practices.”
Across Canada, canola production dropped by 4.5 percent to 18.7 million tonnes in 2020.
In its most recent Dec. 3 estimate, Statistics Canada said average yields decreased by 3.1 percent in 2020 to 40.1 bushels per acre, while harvested area fell 1.6 percent.
In Saskatchewan, year-over-year canola production was down eight percent to 10.2 million tonnes, driven by lower average yields of 39.8 bu. per acre (-4.6 percent) and lower harvested area of 11.3 million acres (-3.5 percent).
Average canola yields in Alberta decreased 0.2 percent to 40.2 bu. per acre, while harvested area fell 1.8 percent, resulting in a two percent production decrease to 5.2 million tonnes.
In Manitoba, canola production was up 4.4 percent to 3.2 million tonnes. Harvested area rose 5.9 percent to 3.4 million acres, while average yields fell 1.4 percent to 41.4 bu. per acre.
Jurke said yields in 2020 were slightly higher than the five-year average but were still below what many growers were anticipating, based on fields that looked to have an excellent start through May and June.
Canola growers in southern Alberta had their best year in a long time, he added.
But producers in other areas saw yield potential fizzle as the season progressed.
“We had a really nice start this year and certainly the biomass of the plants looked to be good through most of the growing season,” Jurke said.
“But from Saskatoon and south, we had quite a few days (in July) with temperatures above 30 degrees and that’s the threshold where the plants’ ability to pollinate flowers and then turn those pollinated flowers into actual seeds is affected,” he added.
“We saw quite a few days that were above 30, particularly in the brown and dark brown soil zones.”
To meet projected global demand, the canola council has established an industry-wide yield target of 52 bu. per acre.
Jurke said the council feels the 52 bu. goal is attainable within five or six years, but it will require better management and some co-operation from Mother Nature.
“Admittedly, it is a stretch goal, but it’s where we’d like the industry to get to, based on forecasts for international demand,” Jurke said.
“We need to be producing 26 million tonnes (a year) by 2025 to capitalize on that demand but we also don’t want to see an increase in acres because that means producers will be tightening up rotations and tighter rotations bring greater risks,” he continued.
“So, if we can maintain that acreage base then we need to really focus on increasing yield to get to that production target.”
The industry has already proven that yields can be increased with better genetics and better management.
Canola yields have increased from a five-year average of 25.3 bu. per acre in the early 2000s to 33 bu. a decade ago and about 41 bu. in 2020.
So what’s needed, aside from good growing conditions, to take average canola yields to the next level?
“What we do know is that if producers manage their fertility better… we can see yields increase,” Jurke said.
“The number of producers that are actually soil testing right now is not that great. It’s only around 50 percent so even doing that and having a bit better understanding of what the existing fertility is and then targeting a better fertility package will do a lot of the heavy lifting.”
Fertility programs should conform to the Canadian Fertilizer Institute’s 4R campaign.
Choosing the right canola variety can result in higher canola yields, Jurke said.
Instead of choosing just one variety for the entire farm, assess each field individually and select a variety that has the genetic attributes that are most needed in each field.
Some canola varieties offer greater flexibility than others in terms of weed control, harvest timing and disease resistance. Choose varieties carefully based on the challenges that are likely to arise in each individual field.
“More strategic selection of varieties, I think, is going to help out a lot,” Jurke said.
Plant stand density is critically important to achieving optimal yields.
In recent years, plant stand densities have been creeping down, often below minimum recommended thresholds that are associated with optimal yields, Jurke said.
Rising canola seed prices have prompted many growers to stretch seed supplies and cover more acres with every bag of seed purchased. But a less than optimal plant stand can be more costly than the price of some additional seed.
Growers should target an absolute minimum of four plants per sq. foot and should ideally be in the range of five to seven plants per sq. foot. Plant densities over eight per sq. foot are considered excessive and can be counterproductive.
Seedling mortality rates should also be considered when determining an optimal seeding rate.
“What the science is pretty clear about is that we need to have a minimum of four plants per sq. foot to (achieve) … your yield potential and the majority of producers have less than that in their fields,” Jurke said.
Under the right conditions, many modern canola varieties have the potential to produce 100 bushels per acre, Jurke said.
“The genetic potential is there but if we don’t have enough plants to actually make use of that photosynthetic area that’s available, then we’re reducing our yield potential.”
Scouting regularly for bugs and disease is critically important.
Identifying production threats early and timing herbicide and pesticide applications properly will go a long way toward preserving yields and increasing profitability.
Similarly, at harvest time, growers should take some extra time to monitor and minimize harvest losses and ensure that the canola ends up in the hopper rather than in the dirt.
“Keeping most of that seed in the combine at the end of the season is important,” Jurke said.
“There’s still some producers out there that are losing quite a bit through harvest losses.
“Mother Nature is not going to co-operate every year.”
But there are always agronomic practices that can be used to achieve higher yields.