Full Circle

When Garry Thiel’s father grew rapeseed for the first time in the late 1940s, he straight combined the crop. Granted, this was Polish canola, which had better shatter tolerance than Argentine of the day, but I find it significant that the first inclination for early adopters like the Thiels was to cut and combine in one pass.

That didn’t last though. Within two or three years, the Thiels of Shellbrook, Saskatchewan had switched to swathing because weeds growing among the ripe crop made straight-cutting difficult. Swathing allowed green weeds to cure.
Swathing was also the preferred harvest method for Argentine canola, which had a predilection for shattering that made farmers nervous about leaving it standing. Swathing became the norm. It still is.

But has its day come? It seems the stubbornly entrenched justifications for swathing – “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” – are themselves shattering.

I make my case in four parts:

One, weed control in canola is much better now than it was in the ’40s and ’50s. Big green weeds slowing up the harvest process are not so much an issue. Green canola stems are a bigger factor, but where green stems or green weeds could frustrate straight combining, we have sprays to cure what ails if cool September days dupe the dry down.

Two, combine header technology has improved. Header studies have shown that while any header type could work for straight combining, extendable-cutter headers from Europe – where most B. napus oilseed rapeseed (OSR) is straight combined – catch more of those seeds that would have otherwise shattered out on contact and bounced to the ground. It works like a giant bib below the combine’s mouth.

Three, the combination of recent research on straight combining canola and a rapidly increasing body of grower experience has led to fairly solid recommended practices. We’re just that much smarter. (Read about these practices here.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, new genetic technology to improve pod-shatter tolerance in Argentine canola, which accounts for almost all canola acres in Canada, is here and coming on stream rapidly. Bayer led the way with L140P a couple of years ago, and for the first time in 2018, the company will have a hybrid with both pod-shatter reduction and clubroot resistance. Most other seed companies have reduced-shatter traits on offer or at the end of the pipeline, and the technology will just get better.

As Monsanto’s Dave Kelner says in Richard Kamchen’s seed update article on page 36, the company plans to introduce canola in Canada with the same “premium shatter tolerance” it offers today in Europe. In reading the pod-shatter page at Monsanto’s Dekalb-brand U.K. website, uk.dekalb.ag, the language suggests that even though most European OSR is straight combined, growers still want more protection from harvest weather delays and seed losses. According to Kelner, improved genetics that Dekalb offers to seasoned straight cutters in Europe will soon come here.

Garry Thiel had his eyes opened when, on a trip to Europe a few years ago, he realized the crop over there was pretty much all straight combined. So he and his son, Grant, started experimenting with straight combining – and they ramped up quickly. Two years ago, they swathed only 30 per cent of their canola. For this year, the Thiels ordered two extendable-knife headers. (Read more about the Thiels here.)

Time saved is the ultimate motivator. If you can eliminate a job like swathing canola, those precious work hours can go toward more timely and grade-preserving combining of cereals, for example. Yield and grade for straight combined canola are about the same as late-swathed canola.

It has taken more than half a century, but with better weed control, better headers and advanced genetics, the circle back to straight combining canola on the Prairies has been drawn. Over the next few years, growers will start to fill it in.