Editorial: We might need 100-bushel canola

The Canola 100 Agri-Prize for the first to achieve 100-bushel canola makes for an interesting challenge. Despite a favourable lingering PR image as the “Cinderella crop,” a look at the numbers suggests canola is showing signs of middle age. A few patches in a good growing year might even approach 80 to 90 bushels now, but the Prairie five-year average yield from 2010-14 was 34 bushels, up just 5.9 per cent from 2005-09. In contrast, yields for boring old spring wheat were up 15.6 per cent over the same period.

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Through the Canola Council, the industry has announced a “Keep it coming” initiative — 26 million tonnes and 52 bushels (1.18 tonnes) per acre by 2025. But to achieve that, there would still need to be a one-in-three-year rotation in Western Canada, contrary to the recommended maximum of one in four. At that level, average yields would need to more than double to 70 bushels by 2025. At the current rate of improvement, they’ll only be at 38 bushels.

So farmers and their agronomic partners need to get to work, especially since canola might have problems finding a home on even a quarter of Western Canada’s 65 million crop acres over the next few years. Some of those same agronomic partners have other ideas for those acres. In 2003 Monsanto announced a $100-million breeding program for corn in Western Canada, saying it could occupy eight million to 10 million acres by 2025. And as we reported last week, Pioneer has the same idea, and has launched six new corn hybrids for the Prairies, of which three are ultra-early. Both those companies are also looking to introduce soybean varieties across the Prairies.

Where are those acres going to come from? Clearly, many will — and should — come from canola. In discussing the launch of the new corn and soy varieties, DuPont Pioneer vice-president Neal Gutterson noted that they will give growers the option of managing canola rotations more sustainably.

And no matter the crop — or its management practices — the word “rotation” is one that we hear more of these days. At one time farmers only needed to rotate crops. Today the need to rotate herbicides, insecticides and fungicides has to be factored into the rotations. In part because crops are now so heavy and high yielding, disease pressure is higher than ever, and new diseases are emerging — especially clubroot, which is a particular threat to canola.

It’s also becoming apparent that just rotating annual crops and their inputs may not be enough to fend off herbicide resistance, so winter cereals and even perennial forage may need to be brought into rotations.

So there’s going to be lots of competition for acres, and canola yields will need to get much higher in order to reach the Canola Council’s ambitious goals. The council and others in the industry have been providing some excellent agronomic support to growers, but to meet those goals, they will need to provide a lot more.

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