Ontario winter canola growers had a banner year in 2020, and future growing seasons could be even better.
“Although acreage was low, 2020 was an excellent year for winter canola,” says Meghan Moran, canola and edible bean specialist with Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
Nobody experienced better yields than Ian, Nick and Ben Toll, who won the Ontario Canola Growers Association yield challenge in 2020 with a winter canola yield of 5,743 lb./ac., or 115 bushels per acre. This is from the best one acre within a field, and farmers must work with a verified agronomist to confirm the yield result. The overall yield for the field was 85 bu./ac.
This is only the second time the Tolls had planted canola. They tried it because they seek another crop to fit into their rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat. Winter canola has to follow winter wheat because nothing else is harvested in time. But with winter canola ripening July, it provides an opportunity to plant soybeans right afterward for a second crop in the same year. The Tolls’ double-cropped soybean crop also did well in 2020 – with a yield of over 30 bu./ac. “With the price over $14 per bushel, it made it worthwhile,” Ian Toll says.
Inputs for the top-yielding crop started with per-acre rates of 50 pounds of nitrogen, 80 pounds of potash, 80 pounds of phosphorus and 20 pounds of sulphur applied in the fall. In the spring, they applied added 28-0-0 nitrogen at 150 lb./ac., and another 20 lb./ac. of sulphur.
At flowering, they applied fungicide. They also desiccated the crop and applied a pre-harvest pod sealant to help hold the pods together and reduce harvest loss while straight combining.
“The past few years, there have just been smaller fields and low acreage of winter canola – about 1,500 acres – but right now there is closer to 5,000 acres planted for harvest in 2021.”
The Tolls credit Mother Nature as the main factor behind their above average crop as they received plenty of rain and decent temperatures during pollination.
Moran adds that a fairly mild winter in 2019-20 likely contributed to strong winter survival in many areas of the province. But that’s not to say conditions were consistently ideal. A late spring frost put winter canola to an important test, which the crop passed.
Winter canola growing regions experienced temperatures above 15°C and as high as 20°C in late April, so the crop advanced quickly toward first flower, Moran notes.
But during May 8 to 13, temperatures plunged below freezing for a few days in a row. In the 1990s, this would have been fatal or severely damaging to winter canola. Not so in 2020. “Many fields were scouted for injury, and the impact of frost was relatively limited,” Moran reports.
Mercedes, a cultivar from DL Seeds, is the only winter hybrid registered for production in Ontario. Moran says some firms do breed winter canola in Ontario, but their market is overseas. For now, she says, there’s limited interest in breeding for Ontario or registering more varieties simply because the market is so small.
However, other genetics have been considered as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s research centre in Essex County has been the scene of performance trials of varieties brought in from the U.S. “That said, we are happy with the performance of the hybrid Mercedes,” says Moran.
Winter canola is getting increased attention from Ontario growers, Moran says.
“The past few years, there have just been smaller fields and low acreage of winter canola – about 1,500 acres – but right now there is closer to 5,000 acres planted for harvest in 2021,” says Moran.
She notes farmers in the southernmost areas of the province are very interested in adding a profitable crop to their short rotations. Some, like the Tolls, are able to double-crop soybeans after canola, thereby harvesting two crops in one year and making winter canola even more attractive.
Farther north, in the traditional spring canola areas, winter varieties face more challenges due to harsher winter and spring conditions. Moran says there are still some success stories. Even though farmers in these regions are unlikely to have the chance to double-crop soybeans, it would make sense for farmers to switch some drier fields to winter canola, Moran says. She adds that choosing winter canola over spring also avoids issues with swede midge, which have plagued spring canola in Ontario over the past few years.
The majority of the province’s winter canola growers are in the south, and, like the Tolls, most are either just trying it for the first or second time. Although this inexperience has resulted in some harvest challenges and nutrient deficiencies, farmers are quickly catching on, Moran says.
She notes growers are choosing the right fields for the crop, avoiding heavier clays and poor drainage that contributes to winter and spring kill. “Many are planting on fields that have gravel underneath or tend to be overly dry in summer for other crops,” Moran says.
Some of the recent success can also be attributed to observing details, like nailing planting dates and seeding rates, she says.
Growers are learning how to handle winter canola’s smaller seed, and many are using row unit planters that produce fields that are very even with all plants at the same growth stage, Moran says.
Winter canola outside of Ontario
All canola grown in Western Canada is seeded in the spring, and that’s unlikely to change. Some years ago, University of Alberta’s canola genetics and molecular breeding expert Habibur Rahman worked on winter canola for the Prairies. He found little potential to improve winter canola’s hardiness trait through traditional breeding.
It’s a different story in the U.S., however, where winter canola has a bright future, according to Kansas State University canola breeder Michael Stamm. About 15 million acres of winter wheat are grown in the southern Great Plains alone, and climate change – with resulting warmer and wetter conditions – could create opportunities for adding winter canola into the rotation, he notes. Fluctuating winter temperatures, however, could prove limiting.
“Latitudes between 35°N and 40°N, where continental conditions are highly diverse, winter survival can be unpredictable at times,” says Stamm. “Variable winter weather here may be more problematic than where temperatures are consistently cold and snow cover is present.”
Winter canola also faces other challenges – ones that any new crop needs to overcome before being accepted by new growers as an alternative. These are varietal consistency and viable markets. The crop needs to deliver high yields and acceptable oil content in climates that can vary from too wet or dry, and too cold or hot. “It takes consistent production in order for the crushers to establish regional markets,” Stamm says.
Ian, Nick and Ben Toll won the Ontario Canola Growers Association yield challenge in 2020 with a winter canola yield of 5,743 lb./ac., or 115 bu./ac. See full results at ontariocanolagrowers.ca.