Sometimes farmers need options.

When hail wipes out a cotton crop or rain falls too late to plant grain, or when pests build up to near uncontrollable levels in a monoculture, it’s good to have a plan B.

“Alternate crop options help farmers spread risks,” says Texas AgriLife small grains specialist Robert Duncan.

Duncan discussed the pros and cons of several alternative crops at the recent Texas Plant Protection Association annual meeting in College Station.

Canola may offer the best potential.

“We have one of the best developed markets for canola,” Duncan said. “Farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are already growing about 135,000 acres of canola.”

“Average yields also look respectable.” In College Station trials the mean yield was 1,118 pounds per acre with a maximum yield of 2500 pounds. Average oil content was 36 percent.

“It takes about 1200 pounds of canola per acre to break even,” he said.

Good price

Price helps that figure. Back in early December, canola price projections for 2011 were right at $10 a bushel. That compared with about $8 wheat. Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City buys canola, offering a regional market.

“Farmers have a learning curve with canola,” Duncan said. “It’s a small seed and they may have difficulty getting a good stand.”

It provides excellent rotation advantages with wheat. “Farmers in Oklahoma adopted canola because they could clean up a significant weed problem in continuous wheat,” he said. Farmers have weed control options including Clearfield, Roundup Ready, Liberty Link and conventional canola varieties.

The rotation pays off. “A canola and wheat rotation increases net return per acre from $170.60 per acre in continuous wheat to $177.32 per acre with the rotation. We can see a 5 percent to 10 percent yield boost in wheat following canola.”

Other options

Safflower offers another alternative crop possibility. “Safflower has a long growing season, 130 to 180 days and is well-suited for dry conditions,” Duncan said.

“But we have few herbicide options and some disease and insect pest issues.”

He said mean yields in research and extension trials have been around 1,000 pounds per acre with a maximum of 1,750 pounds.

Flax, another oilseed, was grown in Texas back in the late 40s. “We currently have no production,” Duncan said. “It’s similar to canola but we have limited weed control options and a limited number of varieties.” A weed-free seedbed is critical for stand establishment. “It also should be established before freezing temperatures occur.”

Average production has been near 1700 pounds per acre in College Station trials with a maximum of 2421 pounds per acre and 39.8 percent oil content.

“The market is not as well-developed (as canola),” Duncan said.

Camelina trials have not produced good yields, only about 400 pounds per acre. Advantages include drought resistance, frost tolerance, a short growing season and minimal insect and disease pressure.

“Unfortunately, the yield is just not there,” Duncan said.

He recommended that growers looking for alternative crops evaluate yield potential, adaptability and market access before committing to acreage.