Oklahoma farmer Alan Mindemann is optimistic enough about a unique crop with great potential that he’s committed 820 acres to winter canola.

Benefits of diversification may improve Mindemann’s risk management strategy in a time of high production costs and volatile crop prices. And the rotation benefits other crop enterprises as well.

Mindemann, certified by the American Society of Agronomists as a crop advisor, cites several advantages to growing canola in Oklahoma and other states on the southern end of the Great Plains.

“Winter canola gives us another cool season grain crop, similar to wheat. You plant it in the same months and harvest it about the same time as winter wheat. You can use the same equipment to plant it and to harvest it. We plant with no-till grain drills and harvest with combines.”

Another agronomic advantage to canola, Mindemann said, is that planting the crop in rotation with winter wheat enables farmers to clean up weeds that have become serious problems with continuous wheat production.

“Rotating canola with wheat will stop the growth of winter grass, rye grass, rescue grass, wild oats and cheat grass, all weeds that cause serious management problems for plains farmers,” he said. “Planting canola will help farmers get away from spraying these weeds with expensive herbicides and suffering reduced prices when marketing weed-infested grain.”

A consortium of agricultural cooperatives and companies are assisting farmers to get started. The push began a few years back with the idea to develop a winter variety of canola, traditionally a spring crop grown in the Northern part of the United Sates. Agricultural companies like Monsanto and DeKalb developed new canola varieties that would grow in a cool season. The new varieties are also Roundup Ready.

Federal grants to help develop the crop and management techniques came through the USDA by the Oklahoma Farmers and Merchants Insurance Company, earlier known as the Farmers Union. The Plains Oilseed Products Cooperative became a reality as farmers, lending institutions and Land Grant university scientists climbed on board.

Last year, the Plains Oilseed Cooperative joined up with the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City to create a facility to process canola. Farmers interested in growing the crop in 2009 can learn more about growing contracts by contacting staff at the Oil Mill, Mindemann said.

Canola is not only unique in its development, but also is very different in appearance, growth habits, management needs and end products uses, he said.

“This year I planted 5 pounds of seed per foot and used a 15-inch row spacing with the drill.”

In early fall the young plant is a rich green color with round, flat leaves that give it an uncanny appearance of a new crop of lettuce or other truck garden crops.

As the crop matures, it goes through several distinctive stages, Mindemann said.

“Perhaps the most unusual stage is when it is flowering prior to seed development. At full bloom, all of the plants have bright, yellow flowers.”

At maturity, the plants develop seed in pods that, when dried out, are ready for harvest.

“Growing winter canola is a serious, hands-on, full-time job,” Mindemann said. “From the time you plant it until you harvest it, you must be aware of several important factors.”

Since winter canola variety development is in its infancy, growing the crop is still a learning experience, he said.

“This year, before planting in the latter part of September, I put down 34 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre,” he said. “Twenty days after planting, we sprayed Roundup over the fields to stop any weed competition.”

In January, Mindemann will topdress with 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Harvesting winter canola accounts for the steepest learning curve, Mindemann said.

“Last spring, late rains caused the canola to start new growth when we were near harvest.” EPA granted permission to use chemicals to control the new growth.

When the crop was harvested, dry weather caused the pods to shatter. Mindemann harvested canola as he would have wheat last year, using a conventional combine.

Some farmers found putting the mature crop into windrows, like hay, gave them a better chance to keep all of the seed in the machine. But successfully windrowing the crop is a practice still in development, Mindemann said.

Now farmers are looking at a completely new method to prepare the crop for harvest.

“Farmers in the Northern Plains who have more experience growing canola use a ‘pusher’ to place the mature crop in a windrow,” Mindemann said. “The pusher is a bar the same length as a regular combine header with an oval surface with sickles at each end. The sickles mark off a typical 36-foot swath and the oval bar presses the stalks down, forming a windrow.

“Applying the bar requires some finesse because if it is too high, the plants straighten back up; too low and they break over, making it even more difficult to harvest with the combine.”

The bar is mounted on the front of a conventional tractor with a three-point hitch, Mindemann said. When using the bar to push down the canola plants, it is important to be able to continually adjust the height of the pusher to accommodate plant height and ground levels.

At seed maturity, combines can be used to harvest the grain, which consists of small, round, shiny seeds.

Mindemann said approximately 3,000 acres of winter canola has been planted in his immediate area.

Farther south, near Walters, Okla., Mindemann’s cousin Jimmy Kinder planted 1,000 acres to winter canola. Kinder and his brother Kevin farm in Cotton County, close to the Red River.

Another portion of the incentive to get farmers to grow winter canola is particularly attractive to Kinder, a longtime supporter of the Future Farmers of America.

“Buyers of Monsanto-DeKalb canola seed are offering farmers incentives to help local FFA chapters,” Kinder said. “At harvest in the spring, farmers with top canola yields will receive prize monies that will be presented to local FFA chapters.”

Producing winter canola fits well with the no-till management practices that Mindemann and Kinder use. Mindemann has been a no-till farmer for 13 years.

“All of our cropland is farmed no-till,” Kinder said. “My brother and I are starting our 10th year of no-till farming. Not only does it give a crop a seedbed that is resistant to wind and water erosion and retains more moisture at the surface and subsurface, but it also helps reduce erosion and moisture management problems for us. That way, we can concentrate on other management needs while growing the crop.”