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Oilseed advantages on the prairies

Oilseed crops are important for western Canadian growers

November 29, 2007
By Donna Fleury


Oilseed crops are important for western Canadian growers, with canola or flax
usually being the first choice for maximizing yields and profitability. Researchers
at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Indian Head, Scott, Swift Current and
Melfort, with help from South East Research Farm at Redvers, are comparing the
adaptability of other oilseed crops to help growers expand their options.

Dr. Bill May, AAFC and research plots at Indian Head, Saskatchewan.
Photos Courtesy Of Dr. B May, AAFC.

"We initiated a research project in 2004 to look at the adaptability of
sunflowers and Brassica juncea compared to hybrid Argentine canola and
flax crops over a wide geographic area and diverse environmental conditions,"
explains Dr. Bill May, crop management agronomist with AAFC at Indian Head.

Canola quality B. juncea is a new crop, and modern hybrid sunflowers
have replaced the open pollinated type of sunflowers largely used in the past.
Sunflower is also adapted to drier areas and the early short stature sunflowers
are adapted to the wetter areas of the province. The economics and response
of flax and canola in western Canada are relatively well known, but much less
is known about the economics and nitrogen response of canola quality B. juncea
and sunflower.


"In order to properly evaluate the economic adaptation of these crops,
we also have to evaluate the economic adaptation at the best nitrogen (N) rate
for that crop," says May. Canola is very responsive to N, but flax and
sunflowers are less responsive. "Therefore, we don't want to compare economic
returns of canola and sunflower at the same N costs." Eight different nitrogen
rates are being compared for each of the four crops. "We're also interested
to see how the N response varied with environmental conditions."

Although the research results are not yet finalized, there are some preliminary
observations that can be shared. May notes that the first two years of the study,
2004 and 2005, had cooler and wetter conditions than normal, and under those
conditions canola and flax did better than sunflower and B. juncea. However,
the conditions in 2006 were warmer and drier, and the sunflowers appear to have
done as well or better than canola economically, and sunflowers use less N.

"Sunflowers seem to have the greatest edge over canola under the environmental
conditions at Swift Current in 2006, but until we compare these results to long-term
averages for this area, we can't make any real recommendations," says May.
B. juncea is not competitive with hybrid canola under the environmental
conditions experienced in 2004 and 2005. "So far, we haven't seen dry enough
conditions that would suggest B. juncea would outperform the other crops."

Growers also need to consider the economics of the N rates used for the various
crops. "Canola is an oilseed crop requiring much more aggressive rates
of N, while more conservative rates can be used with flax and sunflowers,"
explains May. It appears sunflowers is probably the least responsive, flax is
intermediate, with canola the largest user of N. Currently, B. juncea
appears to fall between flax and canola.

"If you tend to be more conservative with N rates and don't want to use
the large N rates required for hybrid canola, then flax or sunflowers may be
a crop that will better fit your rotation in the future," says May. "To
take advantage of the potential yield increase of hybrid canola, you have to
use high N rates. If you feel the high N rates are too risky, then maybe flax
or sunflowers could give you good economic returns without the risk you assume
with higher N rates."

Research plots at AAFC, Indian Head, Saskatchewan.

May expects to have final results in 2008 and hopes to help growers find other
oilseed options for their rotations. "The decision will depend on various
factors, including the grower's inclination of how they want to handle the production
and harvesting of oilseed crops," he says. Sunflowers was the highest yielding
oilseed crop in Swift Current in 2006. However, sunflowers comes with some associated
risks because of later harvesting and variable environmental conditions. "Flax
performed fairly well, and we saw some very high yields under certain environmental
conditions. Canola seemed to be as drought tolerant as B. juncea based
on the environmental conditions experienced during the study."

In 2007, researchers will complete the final component of the study. "We
will be seeding barley onto all of the oilseed plots to compare the effects
of the four oilseed crops on a cereal crop grown in the following year across
soil-climatic zones," explains May. "It will be very interesting in
another year to see the results of re-cropping with barley following the various
crops and N rates used." Watch for final results in 2008. -30-

Growing sunflowers successfully
Some producers have adapted to growing sunflowers successfully and
are doing so profitably. "With sunflowers, you have to be prepared to harvest
later and to talk to other growers about different ways and types of harvesting
equipment," says Dr. Bill May, crop management agronomist with AAFC at
Indian Head. Some growers use pans or different types of extensions on combine
tables for successful harvest. "Harvest is typically between mid September
to mid December, depending on the year and cultivar. It's very important to
choose the right maturity of the cultivar you plan to grow."

Growing sunflowers, as with any other crop, has its pros and cons. The late
harvest has both benefits and drawbacks. "Although some people don't want
to extend their harvest as late as sunflowers requires, it does spread out the
workload because it is both seeded later and harvested later," says May.
"If you want to expand more acres, and don't want to up-size your equipment,
then maybe sunflowers is an oilseed crop to consider."

Jim Thorson, of Thor Farms, operates 6000 acres near Penzance, Saskatchewan,
and has grown sunflowers for many years. He usually seeds between 300 and 600
acres of sunflowers a year, depending on the market and contracted prices. "The
key thing about growing sunflowers is getting your mind around the harvest,"
says Thorson. "Although most years, harvest is completed before the end
of October, one year I harvested 600 acres into February and March." In
2006, harvest wasn't completed until late November. "Variety selection
and fall weather impact harvest. In most years, the seeds are usually mature
early enough, but it's waiting for the plant to dry down enough to harvest."

Thorson straight cuts sunflowers, using pans attached to the frame to catch
the seeds and manage the stalks coming into the combine. He notes there are
different attachments and adjustments made for harvesting sunflowers. The combine
leaves about two to three foot standing stalks. The following spring, Thorson
direct seeds into the standing stubble. "We've tried several different
things, including mowing, but we found in the end that it's best to do the least
amount to the stubble as possible. By leaving it alone and leaving as much stubble
standing as possible, it will rake through the seeder without much problem.
It's very similar to tall stubble management of any kind."

Sunflower in rotation.

In Thorson's experience, the biggest impact on yield is weed control, with
seeding rates having minimal affect. Early weed control is critical until the
crop has a chance to become competitive. "The key is to go out and do an
early pre-seed burnoff, then wait until the soil warms up before seeding,"
he explains. Wait to seed sunflowers until about the middle of the seeding season.
"As soon as the first plant emerges, then I go out and do a second burn
operation with glyphosate." Thorson admits this is a nerve wracking process,
but has found this to be the strategy that works best. He also applies Edge,
same as with other oilseeds. There are a couple of in-crop herbicides registered
for sunflowers, and trials are underway with a herbicide from the US but not
yet registered in Canada. "The trials show great control on kochia, which
can be a real problem for us," says Thorson. "A patch of kochia can
knock the sunflowers yield to nothing."

Thorson has found the best success with some of the older Pioneer varieties.
"There hasn't been any real variety research in Canada, so most of our
research comes out of the US, which doesn't really focus on our shorter season
requirements. I've grown NuSun varieties, which have done fairly well, but any
potential premium is quickly lost to the huge trucking costs to deliver the
crop to the US plant that pays the premium." Thorson treats sunflowers
the same as wheat in terms of fertilizer, using 40 to 60 pounds N and 25 to
40 pounds P, depending on cropping history and soil tests.

There is always a market for sunflower seed, but the price can be quite variable.
Prices are usually set in Manitoba and the US. "The key is who pays the
freight," cautions Thorson. "From my farm to the nearest US crusher,
freight costs are about three or four cents per pound and at a total price of
12.5 cents per pound, it's not worth it."

Thorson notes that some years he has not sold any crop, storing it until the
following year or when prices improve. "I've done a six year comparison
of sunflowers on our farm looking at total deliveries and total sales. The average
yields have been about 1500 pounds per acre, with 2006 yields around 1550. Prices
on average range from 11 to 16.5 cents a pound, with lows down to nine cents
and high prices around 18 cents for oilseed sunflowers. The fall 2006 price
in my yard is 13 cents a pound.

"On our farm, sunflowers have worked very well and have been very profitable,"
says Thorson. "There are a few hard-core farmers who like growing sunflowers
and are making a profit from it." Thorson has worked with researchers and
other co-operators for the past several years on variety trials and other sunflower
production issues in Saskatchewan.