Ironing out the canola kinks

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June 26, 2011 - 7:00pm

Kansas may be nicknamed the Sunflower State, but it's the yellow flowers of the canola plant that are catching the eyes of farmers these days.

Nationally, canola has been gaining traction as a healthier choice for cooking oil. It's also emerging as an option for biodiesel, and the all-purpose oil plant is giving Kansas wheat farmers a companion to the state's staple crop.

Originally developed in Canada during the 1970s, canola started heading south about ten years ago.

But John Holman, an agronomist with Kansas State University's extension department, said it hasn't been smooth sailing for Kansas producers.

"Ten years ago nobody even knew what canola was, five years ago people knew what it was and we had a lot of challenges with growing the crop," he said.

The list of problems included those related to the plant itself and a lack of processing facilities.

"Varieties that weren't adapted to the region and infrastructure as far as grain handling facilities and processing, we didn't have that in place," Holman said.

New varieties of the plant and expanded processing facilities are smoothing out those kinks and the result is more Kansas farmers putting canola in the ground.

That mirrors a national trend, with canola acreage up 11 percent this year after a 75 percent increase in 2010.

But all that extra domestic production, 90 percent of which comes from North Dakota, can't keep pace with U.S. demand. The result is large imports from Canada.

Continued development of winter varieties tailored for a warmer climate could start to close that gap.

"The reason why the crop is just now coming here is because we just now are getting varieties adapted to growing here," Holman said. "We moved the crop from Canada to the southern plains, so that takes a little while."

Holman estimated Kansas acres at around 10,000, mainly in the south-central to western parts of the state. Canola works well in limited irrigation areas but has to be planted in September, about a month earlier than wheat, so it can survive the winter.

Canola has given farmers like Bob Schrock a crop to rotate into his wheat fields every three years. Rotating the crop into winter wheat fields can help alleviate problems with weeds and disease associated with continuous planting.

"Overall it's been profitable and our wheat yield boost behind canola is tremendous. Usually 20 to 25 percent and higher over say just wheat on wheat," Schrock said

More money has more Kansas farmers rolling the dice on canola.

Kansas State Extension agricultural economist Troy Dumler said that looking at comparable yields for winter wheat and canola at current market prices - canola would currently bring in about $200 to $250 more per acre.

The uptick in canola planting has brought larger crushing facilities to Oklahoma City and Goodland, Kansas. Smaller operations like Sharp Brothers Seed Company in western Kansas are also getting into the act.

The company purchased canola crushing equipment two years ago to start producing biodiesel. Today they're making about 50,000 gallons a year and use the fuel to run the crusher as well as combines and tractors.

"Obviously, being out on the western end of Kansas it's a large agricultural section of the state, we use a lot of diesel for agriculture production and other things," Sharp said. "So, I think biodiesel is a good potential revenue stream for the farming community."

Looking to find ideal varieties for commercial fuel production in western Kansas, Sharp Brothers has started planting its own canola crop.

"It's small market, it'll be slow growing and that's why we're moving slow," Sharp said. "I think more so than a profit for us, I think it's more of a good potential for the farmers in western Kansas to be able to add value to their own production."

And there's a bonus that comes with crushing canola for oil.

The process also makes canola meal, a livestock feed.

"Here, we're blessed with this cattle feeding infrastructure so the byproduct in this area locally has just as much value as the oil itself," said John Holman, an agronomist with Kansas State University.

But as tempting as growing the multipurpose plant might be, Holman cautioned against farmers jumping in headfirst because like any new crop there's a learning curve.

Schrock said that's good advice, even though he admittedly swung for the fence on his first try, planting 800 acres to mixed results.

"We did 400 of it really, really well and 400 of it was a disaster," Schrock said. "We did it two separate ways so we kind of found out right away which philosophy to dump."

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