Canola, a source for heart-healthy cooking oil and biodiesel fuel, could be another alternative crop for Northern New Mexico farmers. Researchers at New Mexico State University's Farmington Agricultural Science Center are helping with a national study to see which variety fares best in the environment of the Four Corners region.

NMSU is participating in the National Winter Canola Variety Trial being conducted at 63 locations in 24 states. Michael Stamm, assistant agronomist at Kansas State University, is coordinating the study, which is evaluating the performance of released and experimental varieties to determine where these varieties are best adapted.

The Farmington science center has participated in the trial for two years.

"This year we planted between 40 and 50 varieties. So far it looks like this area is very good for winter canola compared to other areas in the country," said Curtis Owen, the NMSU research assistant responsible for NMSU's portion of the study.

"Winter canola variety performance has really excelled in northwestern New Mexico," Stamm said. "The environment at Farmington, with its plentiful irrigation and high elevation, is ideal for winter canola to show its true yield potential. So far, this has been one of the highest yielding environments of the trial."

In 2009, Farmington's fields had a two-year average yield of 3,969 pounds per acre, or 79 bushels per acre, with the highest yielding variety averaging 106 bushels per acre.

"This was the highest yielding environment out of 29 harvested locations of the 2009 variety trial," Stamm said. "In 2008, the Farmington location, with an average of 76 bushels per acres, was the second highest yielding environment out of 37. The highest yielding variety at this location averaged 95 bushels per acre that year."

The trial compares the various varieties for fall stand establishment, winter survival, bloom date and plant height; percentage of shatter, yield and test weight; and moisture, protein and oil content of the seed.

Winter canola is a good fit for small-grain cropping systems because it and winter wheat require the same equipment.

"Wheat crops following canola have shown a 10 percent or greater increase in yield compared with continuous wheat," Stamm said. "Canola is a broadleaf crop, which allows use of some effective herbicides to control grassy winter annual weeds. Canola and wheat have no major diseases in common, so growing canola breaks weed and disease cycles."

Also, because canola is an oilseed, Stamm says its commodity price is not tied to prices of cereal grains and this spreads economic risks over more than one commodity class.

Winter canola is planted in the late summer. Owen says he plants during the first half of September. The canola plant is similar to winter wheat, which grows until winter temperatures cause it to go dormant. Then as temperatures warm and daylight increases, the plants resume growing in the spring, and the crop is harvested in July or August.

"Canola likes the cooler weather. Presently, commercial canola growers are mostly in Canada and the northern United States, but it appears that our spring climate is conducive for the canola to grow here in the Four Corners region," Owen said.

In addition to the winter canola variety trial, the center is participating in NMSU crop physiologist Sangu Angadi's study of canola as an oilseed crop for biodiesel.

Farmington's irrigation expert, Dan Smeal, is also studying the optimal amount of water needed to raise productive canola.

"We are trying to determine the least amount of water required to get a good yield," said Smeal, NMSU college professor and irrigation expert at the Farmington science center. "We are applying water at different percentages of reference evapotranspiration, which is calculated using weather data such as temperature, humidity, solar radiation and wind speed."