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Canola gains may lie in the north

Yields have increased since 2014, but across the Prairies the average yields were in the high 30s or low 40s in 2022.
The large yield gap between northern and southern Saskatchewan may indicate where yield gains could be made in the province. The average yield data is for L233P, an InVigor hybrid and the most popular canola hybrid in Saskatchewan. The five-year yield data from 2017-21 is skewed lower because of the 2021 drought, so the map also indicates a more typical yielding year, 2019, to better represent what growers are achieving. Risk zones 1, 6, 10 and 16 are in the brown and southern zones and risk zones 17, 20, 21, 14, 15, 11 and 19 are in the black soil and northern zones. | Source: Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp.

WESTERN PRODUCER — In 2014, the Canola Council of Canada set a national canola yield target of 52 bushels per acre, which would mean an annual production of 26 million tonnes.

Eight years later, it seems like the target is out of reach.

Yields have increased since 2014, but across the Prairies the average yields were in the high 30s or low 40s in 2022, nowhere near 52 bu. per acre.

“Average canola yields vary, with a 20 to 60 bu. per acre spread across much of the province. The provincial average yield at 42 bu. per acre is in line with the 10-year average for Manitoba,” said a Manitoba Agriculture crop report in October.

Further west, in September Alberta Agriculture estimated provincial canola yields at 38.8 bu. per acre, about 13 bu. below the 52 bu. target.

The 2022 growing season is just one year and the results aren’t a disaster. However, the provincial yields and average yields don’t tell the whole story about canola and the council’s plan to boost yields.

There are parts of the Prairies where canola growers have already achieved the 52-bu. target.

In the black soil zone of Saskatchewan and the northern half of the province’s cropland, Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. data shows that average canola yields are topping 50 bu. per acre:

  • In northeastern Saskatchewan, in Saskatchewan Crop Insurance risk zone 17, the average canola yield was 53 bu. per acre in 2018 and 2019, for an InVigor hybrid called L233P.
  • In risk zone 19, west of Saskatoon, the average from 2017-19 was 50.8 for L233P.

The yield results were similar in other parts of the Saskatchewan northern grain belt, with average canola yields in the low 50s for the five-year period from 2017-2021.

To simplify the data analysis, The Western Producer collected yield data on L233P because it’s one of the most popular canola hybrids in Saskatchewan. We ignored yield results from 2021 because it was one of the worst droughts in history.

The data for Saskatchewan’s black soil zone matches up with anecdotal evidence as some producers in the region report canola yields in the high 50s or 60s.

The crop insurance yield figures are about 15 bu. higher than the southern and brown soil regions of the province, where many growers are happy to get 40 bu. per acre:

  • In crop insurance risk zone 2, south of Weyburn, average canola yields between 2017-20 were around 34 bu. per acre.
  • In risk zone 16, near Kindersley, average yields were around 35 bu.

Clint Jurke, the canola council’s agronomy director, is familiar with the yield discrepancy between southern and northern regions of Saskatchewan.

The council still has its 52 bu. target, but it’s obvious that topping 50 in every region of Western Canada is not going to happen.

“From a macro level, we want to see the national average at 52,” Jurke said.

“There are going to be some areas that are going to be closer to that 60 bu. range and some areas closer to the 40 bu. range, so the net average is 52.”

The areas that could hit 60 or higher include the black soil region of northern Saskatchewan, where summers are typically cooler and the black soils retain more moisture.

The canola industry needs to push yields and production higher because domestic demand for canola seed is expected to boom in coming years. Cargill, Viterra, Richardson International and Federated Co-op are either building or expanding canola processing plants in Saskatchewan. Canada’s canola crush capacity is forecast to expand by 5.7 million tonnes to 16.8 million tonnes by 2025-26, a 50 percent increase.

Canada’s canola-growing region stretches 1,800 kilometres from Steinbach, Man., to Grand Prairie, Alta., making it impossible to employ one strategy to increase yields across the Prairies.

“That means that we need a complex solution, essentially…. Every region needs to focus on the agronomic solutions that are going to provide benefit for those regions,” Jurke said. “We’re tailoring our messages for individual areas.”

A soil fertility expert in Manitoba said there’s a simple way to achieve a 52 bu. average across Western Canada; stop growing canola in the brown soil zones.

That may be accurate, but it’s not going to happen.

Instead, there are agronomic practices that could push yields into the 60s in the regions that are best suited for canola, offsetting the lower yields in the southern Prairies.

One of those is nitrogen. More N equals more yield.

A few years ago, the canola council asked farmers to run replicated field trials, where they increased nitrogen use by 25 percent. In all cases, the additional N increased canola yield.

“It wasn’t profitable for every farmer, but in the majority of cases that increased nitrogen did provide increased profit,” Jurke said.

“In most cases, it does lie in the realm of fertility…. That’s really why we’re focusing so strongly on the 4R (right rate, right time, right place, right source) program. Because we can get improved efficiency out the fertilizer that we’re using.”

Florian Hagmann is one grower who intensely focuses on nutrients.

Hagmann, who farms near Birch River, Sask., won several canola yield contests in the 2010s, hitting 111 bu. per acre in a 147-acre field in 2015.

In 2018, Hagmann told The Western Producer that he splits his fertilizer application and focuses on getting the right amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, the right distance from the seed.

“If you can have the good seed placement and the good fertilizer placement and the right ingredient at the right time, that’s the key to success,” he said.

Ron Krywko, who farms in Sturgeon County north of Edmonton, has also competed in canola yield contests.

The last few years have been challenging for heat, drought and too much moisture on his farm, but Krywko has pulled off canola yields into the 60s and higher.

“We have the genetics in the canola crop…. If you can provide what that crop needs, there’s no reason why it can’t yield in the 70s,” he said. “I’ve had canola run in the 70s a few years back. It hasn’t lately just because of adverse weather… If you’re not achieving high yields in a good year, it’s (about) how much risk you want to put out. How much are you willing to risk to grow that 60 or 70 bu. canola crop?”

Every year, the National Corn Growers Association holds a corn yield contest in the United States. The NCGA says it is the “most popular program for its members.”

There are similar contests in the U.S., but yield contests aren’t quite as popular in Canada.

Rob Saik, the founder of Agri-Trend, did create the Agri-Trend Canola 100 prize to encourage growers to shoot for 100 bu. per acre.

“Many of the great advances in civilization were done by people competing for prizes,” Saik told Canola Digest in 2017. “For example, margarine was created when Napoleon launched a competition to find a way to provide more fat for his army.”

Such yield competitions can lead to innovation and improvements in best practices because the winners usually share their secrets with a larger audience of growers.

There may be an opportunity for 60 or 70 bu. canola in the northern growing region of the Prairies and significantly lower yield potential in the south, but that doesn’t mean that canola growers in the brown soil zone of Saskatchewan should give up.

There are years in the brown soil zone when yields are comparable to the black soil region.

“I think there’s opportunities everywhere (to increase yield),” said Cory Jacob, provincial oilseed specialist in Saskatchewan. “When you’re growing canola in Nipawin, Melfort and Yorkton, I think producers are pushing it and pushing it harder…. Then in Swift Current, there are incremental improvements they can make…. And doing the best at the time to maintain yield.”

The canola council and its agronomists have a good handle on the practices that protect yield potential and the factors that can rob the crop of yield.

But grower education and outreach can be difficult.

A former agronomist with the council said there’s a group of growers who typically don’t listen to advice. At the other end of the bell curve there’s the high performers, who are already doing the right things. The key is communicating with the growers in the middle, those who could boost yields from 51 to 61 bu. in the black soil zone.

The council wants those producers and all canola growers to identify their yield robbers — pests, disease, crop establishment or selecting a hybrid not suited for their region — and find ways to mitigate those losses, Jurke said.

“We’re trying to encourage growers to take a quantitative look at where yield is lost.”



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