Getting the story straight on straight cutting canola

Pod shatter-tolerant varieties are making straight cutting a more viable option for Alberta canola growers — but it’s not a ‘silver bullet’

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One of Canada’s largest seed suppliers is predicting 40 per cent of Prairie canola will be straight cut by 2020.

“Last year, only around 11 per cent of acres were straight cut, and we’re saying that in the next four to five years, that’s going to increase by fourfold,” said James Humphris, canola seed and traits customer marketing manager at Bayer CropScience.

“If I look at Europe as an example, there are many canola acres across Europe that are essentially 100 per cent straight cut. We believe it has a fit in Canada.”

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By and large, growers tend to swath canola because of the risk of pod shattering, but new pod shatter-reduction hybrids significantly reduce that risk, said Humphris.

“In the last few years, we’ve launched our pod shatter variety, and since then, the adoption has probably exceeded our expectations,” said Humphris. “It was our first variety that sold out in the fall last year. The demand was quite quick.”

Shatter-tolerant varieties may indeed “help drive the movement” toward straight cutting, said Canola Council of Canada agronomist Autumn Barnes, adding that Bayer’s prediction is “optimistic, but possible.”

“There are more and more questions about straight cutting every year,” she said. “It certainly is a really good tool to have when growers are harvesting.”

More and more, the seed industry is gearing toward straight cutting, said Nathan Gregg, project manager at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI).

“Other regions outside of Canada are already doing this practice on a wider basis,” said Gregg. “Trying to make that fit our environment is not really that far of a stretch.”

Producers are also much more receptive to the idea of straight cutting than they were even five years ago because of “costs and economics,” said Gregg.

“The No. 1 benefit that farmers find is being able to eliminate that swathing operation and possibly eliminate the swather altogether off their farm. That’s the carrot for some people,” he said.

“There’s also a yield benefit potential by allowing that crop to stand and fill out to a greater extent. Farmers are always in tune and listening to those ideas that will put money into their pockets.”

Higher yields?

And there is some evidence that straight cutting can lead to yield increases.

“We’ve seen that in trials where we have exactly the same genetics where we’re swathing and straight cutting, and over the three years, we’ve had about a four per cent increase,” said Humphris.

“That’s the same genetics, the same fertilizers, the same herbicides — we’re not spending any more money between swathing and straight cutting, but we’re taking away the extra pass of swathing.”

PAMI is also in the final year of a three-year research project looking at how different header options perform with both standard hybrid varieties and new shatter-resistant varieties.

“What we’ve seen thus far is that there are some marginal differences in the loss levels, the yield levels, and the feeding performance between the headers,” said Gregg. “But overall, they all seem to perform and do the job in the conditions that we’ve encountered.”

That’s a “good news story,” he added.

“That says that people who are interested in experimenting and trying out straight cutting don’t necessarily have to go out and buy a brand-new header to do the job,” he said.

“They can get away with it with the equipment that they have already on their farm.”

But overall, the shatter-resistant varieties show increased yields “due to the fact that they can reduce some of the shatter losses that we see in the standard variety.”

“If you’re looking at straight cutting, it’s probably worth some investment in a shatter-resistant variety so that adverse weather in the fall does not induce unnecessary yield loss through shattering,” said Gregg, adding PAMI’s research team has seen up to four bushels an acre yield increase between the straight-cut treatments and the different varieties.

But Barnes isn’t sure the yield difference is that straightforward.

“If you’re swathing at the correct timing and doing everything right when you’re swathing, I think your yield would be about the same, and there is data to support that,” she said.

“I think a lot of guys just want to get rid of their swather and don’t want to spend the time doing it.”

Not ‘black and white’

For most growers, the great debate between straight cutting and swathing isn’t a “black and white issue,” said Barnes.

“There’s quite a lot of factors, and unfortunately, they go both ways for farmers,” she said.

“If you think about eliminating that pass over the field in a swather, that’s somebody’s time, that’s equipment depreciation, that’s fuel and repairs. There is the advantage that you don’t have to go out and physically swath that crop.”

Even so, Barnes views swathing as a “really good time-management tool.”

“When you straight cut, that crop is left standing, and when that crop is ready to cut, you need to be there combining it now,” she said.

“If you’ve got 20,000 acres of canola to combine, it’s really tough to straight cut all of that at optimum timing.”

“When you’re swathing — especially when a grower has a lot of acres to cover — you can swath different fields as you go, and it helps you stage harvest a little better. Swathing allows a little bit more wiggle room with timing,

Gregg agrees.

“With windrows, you can control the harvest timing to some extent, and you can get that harvest in slightly earlier, rather than leaving that crop to stand and naturally mature,” said Gregg.

“Straight cutting often results in a later harvest date overall, which can be hard to shoulder for some producers when the rest of their neighbours have their crop in the bin already.”

Humphris sees it differently.

“Straight cutting could be that harvest-management tool that gives them a little bit more time at harvest time, rather than having to swath 100 per cent of their acres at 60 per cent colour change and then have to turn around and harvest,” said Humphris.

“Straight cutting could be one of those extra tools that they have.”

But ultimately, straight cutting is not a “one-size-fits-all silver bullet,” said Gregg.

“You have to fit it into the management practices of your farm. There’s some benefits to be gained there, but you have to make it work for your farm.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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