A profitable rotation crop symbolizes the Holy Grail to South Texas cotton farmers.

“We need a crop to break the disease cycle, mainly root rot,” says Charles Ring, San Patricio County cotton and grain farmer.

Ring depends on cotton. “We plant more than half our acreage in cotton,” he says, “but we need to rotate to keep yields up. I prefer planting cotton in a field every third year.”

He's looking at canola, in addition to his stand-by rotation crop, grain sorghum, to provide a profitable alternative and possibly work into a double-crop system with milo. He's just finished his third year with canola.

“I only had a small acreage the first year,” Ring says. “I planted 40 acres last year and 80 for 2005.”

He plants canola in the fall but wet conditions last year made planting a bit difficult. Better planting weather might have meant more acreage for the area, he says.

Pushing acreage to around 12,000 could mean a better future for canola in South Texas, he says. Cargill provides the market and offers production contracts. But they need volume to continue concentrating in this area, Ring says. “We want to keep Cargill interested,” he says, “and we need more acreage, about 12,000, to do that. We often see railroad cars loaded with canola (possibly headed to the Mexican market).”

He says Oklahoma produces about 5,000 acres of the oilseed.

Meanwhile, he's learning how to grow it.

‘Ideal conditions’

“We had almost ideal conditions this past winter for canola,” he says. “The crop was better than last year when a 15-inch April rain blew a lot of it flat. We still averaged more than 800 pounds per acre. But if we can get 2,000 pounds per acre, canola can compete with grain sorghum.”

He just missed that mark this year: the irrigated field made 1,960 pounds per acre, while the dryland field yielded 1,150 pounds per acre.

Half of his 2005 acreage was under pivot and he hopes to find a variety that matures early enough to permit a second crop of milo after he harvests canola. “We may water up the grain sorghum and make a late crop rather than fallowing the land for the rest of the summer,” he says.

Dryland canola may “replace” some sorghum.

His cropping system would include canola behind cotton and possibly fallow land before the next cotton crop. “That could help with disease pressure,” Ring says, “as well as weed infestations.”

The lump in the gravy remains economics. “It has to be profitable,” he says. “Fortunately, canola requires limited investment. Mostly, it needs fertilizer, about $38 per acre.”

He can get Roundup Ready seed but is not sure he wants to make that investment. “Canola can out-compete most weeds so we may not need that technology,” he says.

With a three-year production history, growers can insure canola. It's also a program crop with a loan deficiency payment currently set at 6 cents a pound. Contracts at around 10 cents have made that a moot point so far.

“We need an early maturing variety, something we can harvest in early April,” Ring says.

Planting the small seed poses a challenge. “We get about 146,000 seed per pound so we have to plant that small seed fairly shallow. Managing planter depth can be a problem. It was not easy to control plant population.”

He plants in 20-inch rows.

Little watering

Ring watered part of the crop up with irrigation but “did not have to water it again. We had almost perfect growing conditions.”

So far Ring has seen no evidence of root rot in canola. “I'm not certain what will happen in cotton behind canola and grain sorghum. Grain sorghum will harbor the root rot fungus but is not affected. For that reason, fallow behind canola may be best, but I want to use available water (for a second crop).”

Ring says for late planting, grain sorghum provides a better rotation option.

He's seen no real pest problems in canola. “Birds probably whittled away at the yield a little. We saw some fungal problems last year but none in 2005. It was wetter last year.”

Insects posed no problems. “With limited acreage in the area we may not see significant insect infestation,” he says.

San Patricio County Extension agent Jeffrey Stapper says planting weather may be a key to canola success. Falls that are either too dry or too wet may limit acreage. “Last fall we hoped to plant in October but it was too wet. We had to wait until fields dried out.”

“The key is to get it up and get it going,” says Extension agronomist Steve Livingston from the nearby Corpus Christi Research and Extension Center.

Stapper says the double-crop option may be a good program for some growers, “if we can harvest canola early enough to plant grain sorghum behind it.”

“Unfortunately, we never planted when we wanted to in our rotation test plots,” Livingston says, “but if growers get the timing down, the two crop system makes sense. The bottom line is: the program has to pencil out.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com