A unique crop with great potential has been planted in the Southern Plains states this fall.
The crop is called winter canola and Oklahoma farmer Alan Mindemann is optimistic about its future; optimistic enough to have committed 820 acres to the crop.
Mindemann, certified by the American Society of Agonomists as a crop advisor, says there are several advantages to growing canola in this state and other states on the southern end of the Great Plains.
"Winter canola gives us another cool season grain crop to grow, just like wheat," Mindemann said. "You plant it in the same months and harvest it about the same time as winter wheat. You can use the same equipment to plant it and to harvest it. We plant it with notill grain drills and harvest it with combines."
Another agronomic advantage to growing canola, Mindemann said, is planting the crop in rotation with winter wheat enables farmers to clean up weeds that have become a serious problem with longterm wheat production.
"Rotating canola with wheat will stop the growth of wintergrass, rye grass, rescue grass, wild oats and cheatgrass, all weeds that cause serious management problems for plains farmers." he said. "Planting canola will help farmers get away from spraying these weeds with expensive herbicides and suffering reduced prices when marketing weed-infested grain."
Farmers interested in planting the crop will be glad to know there is a consortium of agricultural cooperatives and companies assisting farmers to get started. The push to start growing the crop started a few years back when the idea to develop a winter variety of canola, traditionally a spring crop grown in the northern part of the U.S., came about.
Agricultural companies like Monsanto and Dekalb developed new canola varieties that would grow in a cool season. The new varieties are also Roundup Ready, being tolerant of using the herbicide after planting to prevent any weed competition.
Federal grants to help develop the crop and managemnt techniques were obtained from the USDA by the Oklahoma Farmers and Merchants Insurance Co., earlier known as the Farmers Union. A cooperative known as the Plains Oilseed Products Cooperative became a reality with farmers, lending institutions and Land Grant university scientists all climbing on board to make growing the new varieties a reality.
A new crop, winter canola, surrounds Alan Mindemann, Apache, Oklahoma farmer who has planted 820 acres. There are many unique aspects about the crop such as the round, bright green leaves in its first stage of growth. Developed as another winter crop to rotate with winter wheat, after harvest the seed will be processed into oil products at the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill at Oklahoma City. (eventerprise1 photo)
Last year, a physical location to process canola came about when the Plains Oilseed cooperative joined up with the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City. Farmers interested in growing the crop in 2009 can learn more about growing contracts by contacting staff at the oil mill, Mindemann said.
Canola is not only unique in its development, but it is very different in appearance, growth habits, management needs and uses for its end products, Mindemann said.
"This year," Mindemann said. "I planted five pounds of seed per foot and used a 15-inch row spacing with the drill."
A field of young canola in the early fall might make you think it should be located in a valley in southern Arizona or California, The young plant is a rich green with round, flat leaves that give it an uncanny appearance of a new crop of lettuce or other truck garden crop.
As the crop matures, it goes through several distinctive stages, Mindemann says.
"Perhaps the most unusual stage is when it is flowering prior to seed development," he said. "At full bloom, all of the plants have bright yellow flowers that is a real attention getter for someone driving by a field."
At crop maturity, the plants develop their seed in pods that, when dried out, are ready for harvest.
"Growing winter canola is a serious, hands-on, full-time job," Mindemann said. "From the time you plant it until you successfully harvest it, you must be aware of several important factors to get the job done right."
Since developing winter canola varieties is in its infancy, growing the crop is still very much a learning experience, he said.
"This year, before planting in the latter part of September, I put down 34 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre on my fields," he said. "
Twenty days after planting, we sprayed Roundup over the fields to stop any weed competiton for the crop."
In January, 2009, Mindemann said, he will topdress the crop with 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Harvesting winter canola makes up the most of the learning portion of growing it, Mindemann said.
"Last spring, late rains caused the canola to start new growth when we were near harvest," he said.
Farmers successfully applied to the EPA for permission to use chemicals to control the new growth.
When the crop was harvested, dry weather caused the pods to shatter, spilling some of the seed on the ground before combines could succesfully harvest it.Mindemann harvested it like wheat last year, using a conventional combine.
Some farmers found putting the mature crop into windrows, like hay, gave them a better chance to keep all of the seed in the machine where it was supposed to be in the first place. But successfully windrowing the crop is a practice still in development, Mindemann said.
Now farmers are looking at a completely new method to prepare the crop for harvest, Mindemann said.
"Farmers in the northern plains states who have more experience growing canola use a "pusher" to place the mature crop in a windrow," Mindemann said. "This is a bar with the same length as a regular combine header that has an oval surface with sickles at each end of the bar. The sickles mark off a typical 36 foot swath and the oval bar presses the stalks down, forming a windrow.
"'Applying the bar requires some finesse becauses if it is too high, the plants straighten back up, too low and they break over, making it even more difficult to harvest with the combine."
The bar is mounted on the front of a conventional tractor with a three point hitch, MIndemann said. When using the bar to push down the canola plants, it is important to be able to continually adjust the height of the "pusher" to accomodate plant height and ground levels.
At the right time of seed maturity, combines can then be used to harvest the grain which consists of small, round shiny seeds.
Canola seed is used primarily to make high-quality cooking oil, Mindemann said.
According to Dr. Sharon Robinson, an Extension nutrition specilalist, "Canola has the lowest levels of saturated fat among cooking oils and no transfat. It is rich in Vitamin E and essential fatty acids, nutrients needed to help maintain human health. It has more Vitamin E than peanut, corn or olive oils."
The oil has other uses and the meal can be used for livestock feed.
Mindemann said there are approximately 3,000 acres of winter canola planted in the immediate area.
Farther south, a cousin of Mindemann, Jimmy Kinder, Walters, Ok., has planted 1,000 acres to winter canola. KInder and his brother, Kevin, farm in Cotton County, close to the Red River.
Another portion of the incentives to get farmers to get on board growing winter canola is particularly attractive to Kinder, a longtime supporter of the Future Farmers of America.
"Buyers of Monsanto-Dekalb canola seed are offering farmers incentives to help their local FFA chapters," Kinder said. "When harvest comes in the spring, farmers with top canola yields will receive prize monies that will be presented to local FFA chapters."
Producing winter canola fits in with the notill management practices followed by both Mndemann and Kinder. Mindemann has been a notill farmer for 13 years.
"All of our cropland is farmed notill," Kinder said. "My brother and I are starting our 10th year of notill farming. Not only does it give a crop a seedbed that is resistant to wind and water erosion, retains more moisture at the surface and subsurface, but it helps us by reducing these erosion and moisture management problems for us. That way, we can concentrate on other management needs while growing the crop."
There are other Oklahoma farmers growing canola this winter. It will be interesting to follow the development of the crop as it grows from a small, wide-leafed, green plant into a tall yellow-flowered crop nearing the important day of harvest.