The decision by Osage Bio to not open their Hopewell, Va., ethanol plant put a big crimp in the plans of grain farmers in Virginia, North Carolina and the Del Marva area.

Many growers are looking for an alternative crop to plant or to augment their wheat production.

Winter canola can be a good fit for small grain growers from a timing standpoint. Planting and harvest are generally in the same time period as wheat, but typically canola can be planted on the front end or back end of wheat planting and harvested on either end as well.

Canola in North Carolina and most of Virginia should be planted six weeks prior to the first hard freeze, typically around Oct. 15. Planting later can be a good gamble, because barring a hard freeze there isn’t much else that can damage canola until the springtime.

Harvesting must be timely, because growers are typically docked when more than 10 percent green seed occur in harvested canola. In tests near Goldsboro, N.C., canola was planted Nov. 1 and harvested June 2, with very little green seed in the combine.

The same equipment, with minor alterations, can be used to plant and harvest canola and wheat. One of the alterations has to do with the tiny size of canola seed. Newer combines are sealed properly to handle seed size, but older equipment may require additional sealing to combine and transport canola.

Though canola and wheat are similar in some areas of production, from a biological perspective there are few direct correlations between the two crops.

Canola is a broadleaf crop, which significantly opens up the herbicide options for controlling winter grasses. With all the problems growers in the Upper Southeast are having managing Italian ryegrass, canola in the rotation may make a lot of sense.

Canola and wheat don’t have any major diseases in common. So, canola in the rotation will help with disease management as much as it helps with weed and grass management.

Perhaps most importantly to growers, wheat behind canola typically produces 10-15 percent higher yield than wheat behind wheat. With the recent trend toward high wheat prices, bumping yields up can be a significant economic factor for growers.

From a marketing perspective, canola is an oil crop — primarily — and is not tied to the price of grain, which can spread out the risk of price fluctuations from year to year.

Are some production problems

Canola can be a good fit for grain growers, but there are some production problems, primarily on the front-end of production and at harvest time that growers should consider before jumping into production says North Carolina State University Organic Crops Specialist Chris Reberg-Horton.

Horton, who works primarily with organically grown canola, says many of the challenges of growing canola in the Southeast are common, regardless of whether the crop is grown organically or conventionally.

“One of the biggest problems canola growers face in the Southeast is how and when to harvest the crop. With canola it’s easy to go from ‘we don’t think its ready’ to ‘it’s laying on the ground,’ Horton says.

In conventionally grown canola, some growers use dessicants, much like cotton growers use defoliants, to get the crop ready for a more uniform harvest. The problem is a lack of labeled materials for use as dessicant.

Reglone, which includes diquat as the primary active ingredient, was recently labeled for use in canola by the EPA and state registrations as of late June were in place in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kansas. The product is being marketed by Syngenta.

A big issue with canola harvest is whether to straight cut or direct cut, versus using a swather, which is something like a rotary mower that is used to cut canola in Canada and the Great Plains. Swathing leaves the crop on the ground to mature for later combining. The practice is not common in the Southeast.

Having a dessicant available will make straight or direct cutting easier and save growers a lot of time in the overall harvest process. And, using a dessicant and direct combining should produce yields comparable to fields that are swathed.

“Greening is always an issue with canola. If you wait for the green material to go away, the crop is often on the ground. Varieties that are only different developmentally by a few days can still have a big harvest loss, if you wait to combine the crop,” Horton notes.

The concave bar on the combine can be set more open for canola than for wheat, though that may sound backwards, Horton adds. Canola is very free-threshing, if you get in the field at the right time. It doesn’t take much to open the seed up and you have a tremendous volume of material passing through the combine, he explains.

On the other end of the spectrum, many growers have stayed away from canola because there have been so few varieties available to growers in the Southeast. Most canola varieties were bred for conditions in the Great Plains states and Canada.

New varieties in pipeline

However, over the past few years North Carolina and Virginia, and a number of other Southeast states, have participated in a National Winter Canola Variety Test program (NWCVT).

Objectives of the NWCVT are to evaluate the performance of released and experimental varieties, determine where these varieties are best adapted, and increase visibility of winter canola across the nation, including the Southeast.

In North Carolina, nine canola varieties produced higher yield than the average yield for all tests in NWCVT. The two highest yielding varieties were Visby at 118 percent of the national average and Hybrisurf at 116 percent of the average canola yield in the nationwide test program.

In Virginia, 17 varieties produced more than the national average. Visby and Hybrisurf were among the top yield producers and Hybrisurf produced the highest oil content of all the canola varieties in the test. However, a test variety, MH06E4 topped all yields by nearly 10 bushels per acre.

Yields in the Southeast are already competitive with the Great Plains and Canada. They traditionally shoot for 40-50 bushels per acre and in North Carolina and Virginia 50-60 bushels per acre are possible once growers learn more about varieties and production practices for the crop.

Horton says North Carolina currently produces about 5,000 acres of canola per year. Georgia is the largest canola producer in the Southeast, usually growing 25,000-30,000 acres each year.

The demand for canola as an oil and alternative energy crop are high. There is likewise a big demand for canola for livestock feed.  Organic canola is particularly highly sought after as a feed source, because it is much more competitively priced than other organic grains in the Southeast, Horton notes.

Worldwide, Canola meal is the second largest feed meal after soybean meal. Canola meal contains 35 percent protein and is complementary to other sources of protein because of its high levels of methionine and cysteine as compared to soybean meal and feed peas.

Canola meal is also relatively high in fiber (12 percent) and is a good source of essential minerals, with especially high levels of phosphorus.

Canola can be a good niche crop for Southeast growers, but they must have a place to sell it, Horton stresses. There is now a significant amount of information on canola production in the Southeast to help growers get started with the crop, he adds.

rroberson@farmpress.com