Canadian canola yields have increased substantially over the last few decades. In the early 2000s, the five-year average was 25.3 bushels per acre. By 2010, that had risen to 33 bu/ac. Today, it’s about 41 bu/ac.
While the upward trend is very positive, yield has been fairly flat for the last five years due — at least partially — to challenging weather conditions. The ultimate goal of the Canola Council of Canada’s strategic plan for Canadian canola is for farmers to achieve an average yield of 52 bushels per acre by 2025.
Every management practice must be tightened up to achieve this goal, especially if hot and dry conditions continue. And it may not be enough to improve the most common management practices, such as timely weed, disease and insect pest control, good nutrient management and crop rotation. To maximize yields, farmers may have to think beyond industry recommendations and be more proactive.
Most farmers already adjust their seeding rates to the conditions they’re working with. Justine Cornelsen, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada, recommends going a step beyond that. Rather than planting a generic, industry standard or recommended seeding rate, farmers can calculate their plants’ average survivability rate and then seed their crops based on optimal plant population.
“You’ve got to have a crop there to work with. If you start with just enough — or not even enough — and then you lose some plants, you don’t have a chance of reaching the crop’s full yield potential,” says Cornelsen. “It’s not just thinking about five pounds per acre, which could mean four plants per square foot or 20. You need to know what your seed survivability on your farm is, so you can actually achieve the population you want.”
In general, Canadian farmers achieve about 60 per cent canola survivability. That said, some producers fall well below the average, while others routinely harvest 80, and even 90, per cent of plants seeded. Unless farmers count plants at emergence and throughout the season, it’s almost impossible to guess survivability, or to understand the full survivability picture.
“You are going to lose some plants — that’s part of the game. But, if you’re not out there measuring, you really don’t know how many plants you’ve lost, when or why,” she says.
Adjust practices to each field’s conditions
Once you’ve determined seeding rate, give those seeds their best chance at survival by adjusting management practices to each field’s conditions. Given that this spring will follow a dry fall and — so far — a low snowpack winter, managing for dry conditions will be critical across much of the Prairies. Conserving moisture should be priority No. 1 in many areas.
Also, think carefully about fertilizer rates.
“One of the biggest red flags in very dry conditions is fertilizer management. Right off the bat, you need to be figuring out yield potential and fertilizer recommendations based on available moisture. It’s about not just sticking to the same thing you do every year, changes need to be made,” says Cornelsen.
Dry soil dramatically increases the chance of fertilizer burn. As such, farmers won’t be able to get away with the really high rates they might apply in years when adequate moisture allows nutrients to move, she adds.
To help ensure emergence, know your seeding equipment so you can seed into soils with some moisture. However, think beyond emergence too — try to seed so you’re not hitting bloom at the peak of your region’s summer heat.
Once your crop is up, manage it based on population.
“If you’re on the low plant population side, it’s a lot more babysitting. You need to be in there making sure you’re not losing any plants. If you have a few more plants, you’ve got some flexibility,” Cornelsen says.
Know and watch for risks specific to your population size. Diseases like sclerotinia do well in a high plant population crop, whereas a tight canopy holds in the moisture conducive to disease development and weeds have more success in lower plant populations.
While adjusting to changing realities is critical, Cornelsen doesn’t recommend producers shift crop choice gears at the last moment, even if conditions are very challenging at seeding. Instead, she says farmers should stick to their original plans, then adjust management practices to suit the conditions. She sees best management practices as a type of insurance against challenging conditions.
“There are a lot of small things you can do to manage the conditions and give your crop its best chance,” she says. “In challenging conditions, having all your bases covered gives you some flexibility.”