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The canola calamity

A hard harvest and tough storage season underline the need for a plan

Last fall’s “harvest from hell” was like a laundry list of what could go wrong.

First there was a drought for much of the growing season reducing yields.

Then as harvest approached, Mother Nature turned on the taps at just the wrong time and kept them on. Throw in a Thanksgiving snowstorm and you’ve got a recipe for a late, tough harvest with canola left out in the swath.

It’s also meant that farmers have been dealing with storage problems due to high-moisture crops, exacerbated by problems moving those crops as China, a major canola buyer, has been absent from the market.

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These problems are forcing farmers to plan ahead in hopes to avoid a repeat of last year and mitigate damage when the weather works against them.

Move it

When faced with less than ideal grain in storage the first and best strategy is to get it off the farm as quickly as possible.

And unfortunately that sort of canola was in ample supply in parts of Manitoba this fall.

Because of the high moisture levels in their canola, producers were facing unexpected machinery and storage problems.

In western Manitoba some farmers shared stories of their wet canola turning into cement-like paste in their augers during transfer. Caused by a combination of excess moisture and oil content in the seeds, this mechanical issue required reversing the auger direction after every load to help clear it of any stuck or crushed seeds. Leaving the plugged auger to dry and deal with later is not recommended unless you have plenty of time and energy to waste the following day.

Manitoba farmers have struggled with storing and marketing canola this winter.
photo: Lucas Delichte

Other farmers reported heating and sprouting even though the seed was in “OK” condition during harvest. Seeing the sprouted canola sparked questions about how to store it and how sprouted seeds can affect the quality of the entire bin.

Phil Franz-Warkentin, a commodities reporter with MarketsFarm, told the Co-operator that as farmers know, there’s no point in hanging on to damaged canola.

“If it’s already sprouting and you know you aren’t going to get the price that you expected, I don’t see the point in holding it all winter,” he said. “I would try to find a buyer like an elevator or a feed processor if the seed is really damaged. Look for options to get a decent price under the circumstances.”

Angela Brackenreed, an agronomist with the Canola Council of Canada, dispensed similar advice earlier this winter at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon. She said growers should cast as wide a net as possible to find interested buyers.

Angela Brackenreed.
photo: Canola Council of Canada

“All I can do is encourage farmers to talk to as many potential buyers as possible. Even though the answer might be ‘no’ today, that could change in a day or week’s time,” she said in an interview after her presentation. She added that producers should check out the Canola Watch website, which keeps an updated list of potential buyers off-spec canola.

Looking ahead

Until farmers can control the weather, it’s always going to be a management challenge when a wet harvest year hits. And there are things farmers can do to prevent the damage that comes with storing tough canola.

For a lot of farmers that means a grain dryer, but there’s still plenty of farmers in Manitoba who don’t own one, especially in the southern parts of the province.

The Co-operator asked a handful of farmers to make a theoretical choice between buying a dryer or aerated storage. The majority said they’d pick more and better storage because it met a regular need, rather than an intermittent one.

And they also said it can be used to manage their tough grain, something Brackenreed endorsed. She said aeration bins’ key role is cooling canola quickly.

“The No. 1 thing is to get it as cold as possible, and as uniformly cold as possible,” she said.

While there’s no foolproof plan for growing perfect canola there are ways to lower your risk of sprouting and spoilage including variety selection, rotation, harvesting the canola at the proper moisture content, swathing instead of straight cutting and using aeration or natural air drying systems.

If air temperature outside the bin is dropping but product in the bin is getting warmer, unfortunately that’s an early indicator of mould growth or spoilage and should be addressed immediately.

Experts like Brackenreed are recommending farmers look for storage solutions to avoid heating, which is the main cause of problems like mould or spoilage. In her presentation at Ag Days she briefly talked about the difference between storage bags and bins for damp canola.

“A bag is more of an open system than a steel bin, so what happens on the outside of the bag has a lot more of an impact on the inside,” she said. “There’s maybe more “breathing” room in a bag than a steel bin. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what’s happening inside the bag and what are the ambient conditions.”

Her example looked at what happens if there’s damp canola in a storage bag and ambient temperatures rise.

“It would be a bad thing if you had high-moisture canola in a bag and then temperatures start to warm up, maybe unseasonably warm. That could impact what’s happening inside the bag a lot faster than it would in a steel bin.

“It could work in your favour though, if it’s really cold out and you had the damp grain in a bag, allowing for more breathing room for that high-moisture canola.”

Throughout her presentation she stressed how aeration is a great way to help condition damp grain. Aeration systems allow for air to pass through a bulk of grain, causing the grain to both cool in temperature and lower in moisture levels. There are upward and downward aeration systems available, each with their specific benefits and disadvantages.

When aerating upward, air movement permits the aeration progress to be easily determined by checking the canola temperature at the top of the bin. With an upward airflow, the fan can be started before filling, and the air leaving the duct will help to keep the perforations clear. While upward airflow is preferred in most situations, the disadvantage of moving air upward is the potential for condensation to form on the underside of the roof when aerating warm seed in cold weather.

Aeration systems are one of the better ways to ensure proper air movement from the start of storage. For bins without aeration fans, there are options like gas-powered aeration fans that attach to existing bins and work in remote locations without electricity.

Another common practice is to transfer canola from bin to bin or bin to truck via auger if it shows signs of heating or sweating. Like aeration, transferring the canola cools the seed by separating the bulk mass and allowing for warm air and condensation to escape. Factors like fuel usage, time and potential seed damage are things to consider.

In the field

Outside of the bin, harvest methods and timing are also key to your canola’s successful storage. Straight cutting is becoming more and more common for wheat and canola, but in years like 2019 it might be a good decision to reacquaint yourself with a swather and watch the weather before you make a final call.

Swathing and straight cutting both have their pros and cons to consider, weather and timing being large factors.

About the author

Reporter

Spencer Myers

Spencer Myers grew up on a beef and grain farm in Belmont, Man. He is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Agriculture Diploma Program and Red River College’s Creative Communications program. Adding to his on-farm experience, Spencer has worked as an agronomist-in-training at Zeghers Seed Inc. in Holland, Man., and a conservation technician with Ducks Unlimited’s Native Plant Solutions division. Spencer is currently based in Winnipeg.

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