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From the Field Editor: November 2011

Cinderella has come a long way since the 1970s when researchers Keith Downey and Baldur Stefansson turned rapeseed into the oilseed crop that has transformed western Canadian agriculture.


October 20, 2011
By Bruce Barker

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Cinderella has come a long way since the 1970s when researchers Keith Downey and Baldur Stefansson turned rapeseed into the oilseed crop that has transformed western Canadian agriculture. Cinderella is now the Queen. 

Statistics Canada predicts a record acreage of 17.8 million acres of canola will have been seeded this year. With average yields predicted at 32.3 bushels per acre, Statistics Canada is forecasting a record 13 million tonnes of canola production in 2011. That’s nearly 11 percent more than in 2010. At 13 million tonnes, canola could provide $6.5 billion dollars in farm cash receipts.

Just think how big the Queen’s kingdom would be if the roughly three million acres of unseeded cropland in Manitoba were sown in 2011. An additional one million acres of canola could easily have been seeded on the eastern Prairies. With the average yield predicted by Statistics Canada, production there could have added another 0.75 million tonnes.

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Those numbers could quite possibly be low. I’ve been hearing routine reports of canola running in the 45 to 50 bushels per acre range in central Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Statistics Canada’s own maximum vegetative index (NDVI) map through the first week of September showed much higher NDVI readings in most of Alberta and Saskatchewan, indicating bumper crops.

Leading up to the 2011 harvest, the Canola Council of Canada released a report showing that Queen Canola contributed $15.4 billion annually to Canada’s economy (2007 through 2010 average). Canola was responsible for providing 228,000 jobs and $8.2 billion in employee wages annually. Most of these economic benefits occur in Western Canada. 

The reason canola acreage is at a record level is easy to see. Canola is one of the most profitable crops out there. And with the ease of weed control made possible by herbicide-tolerant systems, canola is as easy to grow as former King Wheat.

The 2011 production of 13 million tonnes isn’t far off the Canola Council of Canada’s Growing Great 2015 production goal. The program was established in 2007 with the goal of sustainably producing 15 million tonnes of canola each year. And there is the rub. 

Sustainability may be putting a few chinks in the Queen’s armour. 

A canola rotation study (reported on page 28 of this issue) found that in central Alberta and Manitoba, most farmers now grow canola every other year. The Peace River region has canola on canola or canola every second year as the most common crop rotations. 

But canola on canola has a yield penalty of 15 to 20 percent, and it is no coincidence that clubroot emerged in an area where short canola rotations have been common for years or that blackleg strains are mutating. Although the use of glyphosate in Western Canada hasn’t provided the same selection pressure as a continuous Roundup Ready corn/soybean rotation in the U.S. Midwest, shortening canola rotations may be the tipping point for glyphosate-resistant weeds.

So how does the Queen stay on her throne, sustainably? One of the drivers could lie in the genetic potential and net returns of other crops. Those same areas that were reporting 50 bushels per acre of canola were also reporting malt barley in the 85 to 110 bushel per acre range and wheat in the mid-60s to 70s. At today’s prices, canola could be grossing $570 per acre, CWRS wheat close to $500, and malt barley in the low $500 range. 

Given the cost of production, net returns are likely similar between these high-yielding crops. A similar argument could be made for some of the pulse crops, as all commodities have risen with the commodity-price tide.

Other factors in sustainability will include implementing programs like Integrated Weed Management, and relying on public and private researchers to continue to develop new varieties, new pesticides and new sustainable approaches to crop production – in all crops.

Long live the Queen.