To Straight Cut Or To Swath?

For 15 years or more, Cliff Sime compared swathing with straight cutting… “In those 15 years, only once did the swather beat the straight cut yields,” he says.

Traditionally farm-ers in Western Canada have swathed canola before combining it. Agronomists tell us yields and oil content are higher when canola is combined standing. While many farmers find straight combing canola a frustrating and still-too-risky endeavour, a few have made the change and sold their swathers.

Glen van Dijken, Colin Felstad and Johann von Rennenkampff all crop around 1,000 acres of canola around Westlock, Alta. All three have done some straight combining of canola, but they feel the risk-reward ratio is not there for them. They swath most of their acres.

Cliff Sime of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., and a Manning farmer, who wants to be anonymous, both crop up to 5,000 acres of canola and neither owns a swather anymore. They both feel they are ahead straight combining canola.

Theo Jonk of Westlock does some of both, seeing a fit on his farm for both methods.


Glen van Dijken started grain farming small, alongside his hog operation. He straight cut all his canola — a polish variety at the time — for the first 10 years. His canola acres never topped 100 acres and were only 10 per cent of his cropland.

Now van Dijken crops around 1,000 acres of canola and swaths it all. “The amount of acres we do with canola now, I wouldn’t dare leave it all stand,” he says. One of his main concerns is that standing canola gets tough quickly, making it hard to combine. “As soon as the sun goes down, especially in October, it really starts to grind through the machine.”

Von Rennenkampff experiences the same problems. “I used to straight cut all my canola (when he had fewer acres.) It produces very good seed… But the hassle, in my opinion, is too big,” he says.

Felstad’s biggest concern is how long you have to wait. “By swathing, we get going early on the crop,” he says.

Van Dijken and Von Rennenkampff agree with him. All three speak of the difficulties of trying to combine tough canola late in the crop year. Canola is often the early crop for Felstads, who try to get all the mileage from their combines they can. Canola takes longer to mature if left to straight cut.


The farmer from Manning began straight combining years ago when his foreman from Europe told him no one there swaths canola at all. “We started out doing a little bit, and (finally) we went full straight combining,” he says. He seeds all Liberty 5020, a shorter heavy variety that has good shattering tolerance. If he needs to, he will desiccate with Roundup, usually by plane to avoid sprayer tracks.

He uses JD9870 combines with 36-foot draper headers, equipped with a Roto-Shear and a top auger for better crop intake. Today’s new combines are all better equipped to handle tough straw, he thinks. He

prefers to combine at 13 per cent moisture, as there is less shattering then. He dries it to 10 per cent. By combining canola on the tough side, he has fewer cracked seeds, higher yield and less loss out the back. Well set up with a good drying system, he often combines at 15 per cent or more. Manning doesn’t have many really dry falls, he says.

“I believe with canola the bigger the crop the easier it is to straight cut,” he says. He plans for good fertility, as a thick stand is important to reduce shattering.

Cliff Sime has been 100 per cent straight cut for the past five years. For 15 years or more he compared swathing with straight cutting, using a weigh wagon to monitor yields. “In those 15 years, only once did the swather beat the straight cut yields,” he says. Both Sime and the Manning farmer feel they gain at least three bushels per acre by straight cutting.

Straight combining also saves time and labour. As he grew bigger, Sime found that he just couldn’t swath it all. “The ranker the crop, the easier it is to straight cut than to swath,” he says. He too plans for high fertility, using Liberty and Roundup varieties. He looks for varieties that will lodge, reducing shattering. He desiccates some.

Sime combines with JD9870s, with a flex header. He finds the canola, when too ripe and fluffy, doesn’t feed properly with a draper header. The rigid straight cut headers don’t have enough room between the knife and the auger, he says.

Neither Sime nor the Manning farmer are worried about late maturity. Both feel that the later in the year, the better the crop goes through the combine.

A good drying system is a big factor, thinks Sime. “I’ve traded my swather for a dryer,” he says. They don’t worry about moisture, they just go when they can. “On Thanksgiving weekend, it was cold and miserable, we were doing 500 acres a day with three machines. It was thrashing quite well,” Sime says.

This year, with its wet fall in the Manning area, the farmer still has about 1,000 acres of canola in the snow. He is sure he would have even more acres out if he had swathed his canola. “Especially after a rain, it takes an extra day for the bottom of the swath to dry,” he says. One of his neighbours straight combined through three days of snow. That wouldn’t have been possible with swaths.

Sime says they’ve never left any out yet.


The Manning farmer recommends that farmers interested in straight combining should start out leaving a little canola standing and get some experience. This is what Jonk of Westlock did. He now straight cuts about 40 per cent of his 1,000 acres of canola. They get a five to seven bushel-per-acre increase, better-sized seeds and more oil, Jonk says. He straight cuts his best fields with the thickest stands using a Lexion 560 combine.

“I wouldn’t go back,” says Sime.

“I wouldn’t dare to be without a swather now,” says van Dijken.

Who’s right? What works for one farmer doesn’t work for the next. The right equipment, the ability to handle risk, the farm size — these all seem to be drivers for making the decision: to swath or not to swath?

Marianne Stamm is a freelance farm writer from Jarvie, Alta. Email her at [email protected]

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