Seeding their canola with a corn planter has meant a whole lot of work and a little bit of luck for the Olson family — but they hope this will be the year their work pays off.
“This year, we’re doing all of our canola with the corn planter, where we’ve just done a couple hundred acres in the last couple of years,” said Nikki Olson, who farms with her husband Tyler and his family near Pine Lake. “This will be the big test this year.”
The Olsons began exploring the idea of seeding their canola with a corn planter two years ago. They had a corn planter used for planting corn for silage back in their feedlot days, so they decided to try it out.
“We had all the infrastructure sitting here, not being utilized, so we thought we’d buy some canola discs, throw them in the planter, and give it a shot,” said Olson, who also works as an agronomist.
That first experiment went so well that they decided to upgrade to a newer corn planter and seed all of their canola that way this year.
“It’s been going really well. It has actually worked better than we anticipated.”
So far, the Olsons have been able to halve the recommended seeding rate while maintaining their yields. On-farm trials showed that they could drop as low as two pounds per acre, but they settled on 2-1/4 pounds per acre as optimal for spacing and yields.
“Canola seed is one of the most expensive things to buy, and being able to cut that cost in half has been huge for us,” she said.
They’re also able to get their seed in the ground faster this way, seed mortality rates are low, and maturity is more even (which improves swathability and seed kernel weight at harvest).
“We’re typically hitting at least average yields,” said Olson. “We’ve had a couple of really strong years, and we’ve been lucky.”
That’s partly what’s been driving interest in ‘canola planters’ over the past few years, said Shawn Senko, agronomy specialist at the Canola Council of Canada.
“The benefit of the corn planter is the precision placement, which is key with canola — getting the proper depth and not getting those double or triple seeds we see with a bulk metering system,” said Senko.
“The survivability is much better with a corn planter when you’ve got that proper depth and the proper spacing between seeds. We can get that survivability up from that typically 50 per cent to 60 per cent average across Western Canada — corn planters are much higher than that. That’s what’s driving the interest in it.”
Slowly gaining traction
Nevertheless most growers are still just kicking tires right now and waiting to see how it works out for others.
“There’s certainly interest in it. Every year, I get questions on it, but it doesn’t seem to be taking off really fast,” said Senko.
“From what I’ve heard, there’s a few farmers out there trying it, but I don’t see a lot of fields commercially planted with it.”
There are a few reasons for that.
First, corn planters are expensive.
“The cost of the equipment itself is very prohibitive, so if you don’t have a dual purpose for that equipment, the average farmer will not have enough acres to be able to support the additional cost of that extra piece of equipment,” said Olson.
“We already had the corn planter. We were doing a ton of custom seeding with it. So it just made sense to do a little bit more investment to be able to flip into canola.”
Second, there’s a lot to learn about using corn planters successfully — and not a whole lot of resources or support out there yet to help a producer through it.
“One of the challenges we’ve found is that support is really limited because not enough producers are doing it,” said Olson. “It’s a huge learning curve that we faced quite a bit on our own.”
Some trial data exists, but very little for central Alberta, so Olson, her husband, and her father-in-law Kent Olson had to rely on information out of the States.
“It was the three of us doing a lot of our own research to figure it out,” said Olson, adding dealers wanted to help but didn’t always have the information they needed.
“Agronomically speaking, we were lucky because I was able to be confident in the agronomy side of things, where my husband and father-in-law have more of the mechanical experience, so we were able to put all three of our heads together.”
The agronomy is also a little different when seeding canola with a corn planter. Because the row spacing is wider — 15 inches on the Olsons’ machine, and up to 30 inches on some of the older ones — it can take longer for the crop to canopy in, which can increase insect and weed pressure.
“We have to manage that really well. That’s one thing I didn’t do on our first year, and we definitely saw a yield hit there,” said Olson, adding they had to spend a little extra money in the following crop to clean up the field.
“That was part of the learning curve — with the way that the row spacing is there, early on it seems like it takes a bit longer to mature because it takes longer to canopy in. That’s one of the risks we have to balance better.”
And that’s why producers should still be targeting five plants per square foot, even if they’re putting less seed in the ground.
“Your crop is your best weed control, so if we start seeing longer time for ground cover, more space between plants, and more sunlight, it just gives those weeds a better chance to grow,” said Senko. “Even though you’re changing technology, making sure you’re still going for that proper plant stand is important.”
But for most producers, fertility is what’s holding them back from making the switch.
“A lot of producers are used to a one-pass system,” said Senko. “Some of the newer machines are addressing it now, but the ability to get all your fertility down wasn’t possible in the older machines.
“I think once the issues are figured out with the fertility, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more planters on the Prairies.”
And that’s likely to continue as more companies work to optimize this technology for canola and as more corn acres crop up in Alberta.
“It definitely seems to be gaining traction,” said Olson. “Corn varieties are developing to become shorter season so that they can be grown farther and farther north in Canada, and as that develops, the opportunity to use a corn planter for canola in central and southern Alberta will continue to grow.”
“I think it will take off,” he said. “As you get more acres and larger farms, you can have something like this dedicated as a canola drill. And as we see more corn acres come in over time, it might be more useful.
“There are definitely more and more companies producing new technology, so I think that’s going to help it come along.”
But for now, it remains in the realm of early adopters like the Olsons, who admittedly wouldn’t have explored this as early as they did if they hadn’t had a corn planter on hand, plus the agronomic and mechanical know-how to make it work.
“Planting canola isn’t going to be for everyone just because of the cost of the investment,” said Olson. “We already had the equipment, so it was easy to make the adjustment, but that initial investment is quite substantial.
“For a smaller farmer, it just might not be an attainable option. As the technology becomes more commonplace, which we think it will, I think it will become more cost effective here in the next few years.”
It will also take a little luck, she added.
“So far with the canola planter, we’ve only seen the good side of it,” she said. “We haven’t had a tough spring yet, and when that tough spring hits, it might be pretty devastating for us using a lower seeding rate if we have that early frost or early bug pressure.”
That’s why it’s a good idea to have support from other farmers who have done it before or are doing it themselves.
“That’s one thing that’s really important — don’t go at it alone,” Olson said. “Hunt somebody down who has done it, because they already went through the steep learning curve. There’s no point in trying to reinvent the wheel.
“This could be an incredible technology as agronomics change, and it definitely makes sense to talk to other farmers and figure it out together. It’s not something you’re going to want to do on your own.”