“Last fall was an exceptionally challenging time for farmers planting winter wheat and canola," said Heath Sanders, agronomist for the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City, Okla.

"Our preferred time for planting winter canola from September 10 to October 10 came at a time of severe drought in the Southern Plains. On top of that, an early frost in late October further stressed the new crop. Winter canola has a large tap root enabling the plant to search for any available soil moisture. It does a good job of this, but the dry soil and sudden sharp frost hurt a lot of the crop before it got a good start."

Gene Neuens, PCOM field services director, estimates 250,000 acres of canola have been planted in Oklahoma. He believes 40,000 acres have been planted in Kansas and 22,000 acres in Texas.

"We have records of winter canola being planted and growing in all sorts of places this season," Neuens said. "We know there are fields of the crop as far southwest as San Angelo, Texas, and as far north in that state as the northern part of the Texas Panhandle. What we had rather not know about are the extremely dry conditions farmers had to plant in and the continuing lack of rain throughout the area."

Recently back from trips to Kansas and Texas as well as all across Oklahoma to visit with farmers interested in producing winter canola, Neuens and Sanders say there can be extreme differences in the amount of soil moisture and crop condition in only a few miles.

"Wheat and canola look very good for the current weather conditions south of Lawton, Okla., in the Walters area," they said. "On the other hand, not too far away, around Chattanooga, it is exceptionally dry."

Growing conditions vary

Differences in crop growing conditions can vary greatly in less than 10 miles when driving down the highway. "Both of us have been traveling separately in different directions lately," Sanders said. "When we get back to the office, we both agree it is the same everywhere we have been.

"Some places have a little moisture where it rained a few tenths of an inch more than just over the hill and the crop will be green and growing well for the conditions it was planted in. A little farther down the road, we see places where the crop is up and growing, but it needs a drink of water really bad."

Now is when Sanders will begin to talk to his farmers about applying fertilizer to get the crop growing when it comes out of dormancy and begins to grow with longer periods of sunlight. This winter, however, he is cautioning farmers to wait a little bit before making fertilization decisions.

"Applying fertilizer after we get some much-needed moisture will be a better choice for farmers right now," he said.

Southern Plains farmers have adopted winter canola in the past few years for several reasons, Neuens said. "As most farmers know, winter canola came from regular canola, a spring crop grown for a long time in the northern U.S. and Canada. It is an oilseed crop. Canola seed consists of around 41 percent oil content. It is a tiny, black seed which can be processed into nutritious cooking oil, biofuels and livestock feed.

"Land Grant University agronomists at Kansas State University and Oklahoma State University checked out the crop when seeking ways to reduce the presence of perennial weeds in continuously-cropped winter wheat in the Southern Plains."

Decades of growing winter wheat in the Plains states and not rotating with any other crop led to a nightmare for farmers, he said. Weeds like winter rye and cheat grass rapidly spread throughout the region, infesting wheat fields so thoroughly farmers in Kansas and other states often wondered if they were growing weeds or wheat.

"At harvest, farmers began to take a real beating when the price they were paid for wheat was docked due to the weed seed in the loads of wheat trucked in," Neuens said.

Using chemical control to kill weeds in wheat has proven to be a time- and money-consuming practice. Led by OSU weed scientist Dr. Tom Peeper, agronomists found canola, when developed into winter crop varieties so it can be grown at the same time as winter wheat, did a good job of disturbing and stopping the presence of the weeds in wheat the following year. In less than a decade, interest among farmers has grown. Farmers are now growing winter canola in a one- to three-year rotation with wheat to reduce weed pressure.

Aggressive growing characteristics and good prices for canola seed are other good reasons for growing the crop. An effective crop insurance plan for canola has encouraged both established and new farmers to try the crop.

Rotation helps

"Some established farmers have gone to a one-to-one-year rotation with canola and wheat to take advantage of canola prices averaging $3 to $4 per bushel more than prices paid for wheat at the same grain terminals," Sanders said. "And the crop insurance provides a good cushion for new farmers growing the crop for the first time."

Sanders says canola is more of a hands-on crop than winter wheat. Rather than driving by the wheat field every few days or so to eyeball the crop's conditions, growing canola right requires that a farmer walk the field to check for soil moisture, crop color and even kneel down to look under the crop for the presence of pesky insects, he said.

"Professional agronomists like me and Extension specialists from OSU are only a phone call away to answer farmers' questions and check out problems in the field," he said.

One of the most important reasons for the growing popularity of canola production in the Southern Plains is that canola and wheat can be planted and harvested with the same equipment. The same grain drill used to plant wheat is used to plant canola and the same combine or harvester used to harvest wheat will harvest canola. "We know of several different ways to prepare canola for harvest, depending on weather," Sanders said. "But it isn't difficult to work out these questions at harvest."

Several times each year, Extension staff, along with seed company and processing plant personnel, sponsor winter canola production meetings in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. These meetings are well-publicized in the news media to alert farmers interested in learning more about the crop.

"If the weather lets us have a decent crop in 2013," Neuens said, "we believe there will be a demand for the crop and good prices paid for the seed. We know fewer acres of spring canola have been planted in Canada and the northern U.S. This, combined with an increasing demand for the seed for cooking oil, biofuels and livestock feed, should make growing the crop more attractive than ever before."

Neuens has observed winter canola grown in the Texas High Plains under center pivot irrigation in a few scattered areas, he said. "The results of this practice should be very interesting in yield potential," he said.

For information on growing contracts, prices and grain markets, contact Neuens at 405-232-7555. Sanders can be reached at the same number to give production information. OSU County Extension directors as well as farmers cooperatives have information on growing winter canola. Neuens' email is cscneuens@yahoo.com. Sanders' email is hsanders@producerscoop.net.