Shortening rotations to meet demand from a spate of new crush plants will backfire, say experts
Prairie canola growers will need to up production to meet the growing demand from a rash of new crush plants in Saskatchewan.
But they won’t get there by sacrificing sustainability, says the Canola Council of Canada.
“For us, it’s not yield at all costs,” said Curtis Rempel, the council’s vice-president of crop production and innovation. “The research is showing our best management practices increase yields while increasing profitability and sustainability and reducing risk.
“A yield-at-all-costs strategy won’t be sustainable.”
Federal research scientist Breanne Tidemann agrees — but fears growers might try anyway.
“There’s going to be more temptation to include canola more frequently in rotations, particularly if canola prices also stay where they’re at,” she said. “If you want to be selling to these canola crush plants or these other new markets, you’ve got to be producing the crop to do it. But shortening the rotation isn’t a good way to go about that.”
In fact, it could have long-term consequences, said Brittany Hennig, research administrator with Alberta Canola.
The key to sustainably growing canola is managing the threat of diseases, weeds, and insects, she said. And tighter rotations increase the risk of all three.
“We have different pests, and it seems like we’re seeing more of them more frequently,” said Hennig. “When we talk about shorter rotations, we’re seeing issues such as weeds and herbicide resistance. We’re seeing diseases overcome resistance. We’re seeing newer diseases like fusarium wilt in Alberta.
“So we need to be increasing our creativity in looking at pest management.”
Regardless, the market will soon be amplifying the signal to grow more.
The country’s canola-crushing capacity of 11 million tonnes is set to increase by 5.7 million tonnes following an unprecedented series of recent announcements by processors.
Ceres Global Ag is building a new crush plant in southeast Saskatchewan that will need 1.1 million tonnes annually; Richardson International is doubling the capacity of its plant at Yorkton to more than 2.2 million tonnes annually; both Cargill and Viterra are building crush plants at Regina; and Federated Co-operatives Ltd. is building a renewable diesel refinery, also in Regina.
So producers will need to either increase their yield or their acres — but “there aren’t too many more acres to expand to,” acknowledged Rempel.
“There are some acres where we don’t have an appreciable amount of canola, but those are limited,” he said.
However, tightening rotations would have the opposite of the intended effect over the long term.
“You get an increase in yield for every year that you rotate out of canola,” said Tidemann, adding that’s typically about five bushels an acre.
“If you’re currently sitting at a three-year rotation — say, canola, wheat, peas — and you shorten it to just canola-wheat, you’re going to lose yield in your canola.
“So if you don’t want to add any more headaches to farming — there’s enough of those already — you need to make that rotation as diverse and as long as possible.”
Use those improved genes
A better option is to maximize the yield on existing canola acres.
“The real bang for the buck is going to be trying to stick to your rotations and starting to think about the best management practices and tools that you can implement to increase your yields,” said Rempel.
That’s a reasonable goal based on the potential of today’s varieties, he said.
“The genetic yield potential in all of our hybrids — even in some of our shorter-season zones — is probably well over 70 bushels an acre. That really answers the call as to how much canola we need,” he said. “We know the genetic yield potential is there, so then it comes down to maximizing that genetic yield potential.”
The canola council is targeting 26 million tonnes of production by 2025, which translates to 52 bushels an acre. In the last five years, production has averaged 40 to 42 bushels.
“We haven’t broken through it, but also we haven’t dropped back significantly either during some very tough years,” said Rempel. “Genetics and agronomy are combining to hold our yields.
“The fact that we’ve held at 40 to 42 bushels has given encouragement to our crushing, processing, and exporting industries.”
And what needs to come next is clear, he said.
“The heavy lifting in the near term is going to be through better agronomy.”
The council wants producers to focus on four areas: Integrated pest management, plant stand establishment, fertility and harvest management.
“If you focus on those four pillars and you systematically break down the production practices that have to go on with those four pillars, it becomes more manageable,” he said.
“We know from research what the best management practices are. We just need to drive adoption of those best management practices and start to incorporate them into our canola production plans.”
While practices vary from region to region and from farm to farm, the principles don’t change, he added.
“There are lots of variables growers have to manage over the context of an entire growing season, but it boils down to starting with your objectives and then breaking it down into manageable chunks as the growing season progresses.”
‘Yield goal is totally attainable’
For Hennig, this involves growing disease-resistant varieties, monitoring disease risk, and managing weed and insect pests with the appropriate products at the right time. It also means paying attention to the plant stand — optimizing the seeding rate and depth, adding adequate fertility based on soil tests, and conducting plant emergence counts.
“All of those agronomic decisions really come into play if you’re wanting to have a higher yield without having to increase canola in your rotation,” added Tidemann, who recommends producers follow best practices laid out by groups like Alberta Canola and the canola council.
“They’re making these recommendations for a reason — to try and help you grow a better crop.”
And if producers decide to tighten their rotation instead?
“I really think we’re going to start seeing a lot more difficulty in managing those crops,” she said. “The shorter and less diverse the rotation, the more pest issues we’re going to have.
“If you’re just shortening your rotation, that’s almost a guarantee you’re going to start dealing with more pests.”
It’s well established that increased pest pressure hastens the advent of resistance. To see the impact of losing insecticides, just look at the plight of rapeseed growers in the United Kingdom who lost some key products because of government bans, Hennig added.
“In some parts of the country, they can’t even grow oilseed rape anymore,” she said. “That crop has been completely removed from their rotations because it can’t grow without insecticides for cabbage stem flea beetle.
“We need to think about managing these tools properly so we have the future use of them.”
And Hennig is confident that growers can increase production without rolling the dice on rotations.
“The yield goal is totally attainable,” she said. “We just need to make sure we’re focusing on the long term.
“We don’t want to take any shortcuts to meet that demand in the short term.”