Want to try Canary seed in your crop rotation? Caution is advised

Prices are up right now, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there

Canadian Canary seed production translates to about $100 million in export values each year and totals more than 80 per cent of the world’s overall Canary seed crop. The photo above shows a Canary seed field ready for harvest.

Canadian farmers, nearly all of them in Saskatchewan, grow approximately 300,000 acres of Canary seed each year for export as bird seed. Canadian Canary seed production translates to about $100 million in export values each year and totals more than 80 per cent of the world’s overall Canary seed crop. The cereal can pay producers well. In a good year, Canary seed can offer the highest returns of any cereal crop. Yet, a limited and static market means the crop is susceptible to oversupply. As such, Kevin Hursh, executive director of the Canary Seed Development Commission of Saskatchewan, is only cautiously encouraging to producers interested in giving the crop a try.

“I tend to think Canary seed looks like a pretty good option but there are a lot of good options. Prices are up around $0.31 per pound right now (December 2020). But, unless someone is out there offering new crop contracts at a high price, there’s no guarantee that the price you’ll receive next year (2021) will be at today’s level. The worry is that Canary seed is a small acreage crop; an extra 50,000 or 100,000 acres would be a big deal. If a whole bunch of people jump into Canary seed, the price will crash.”

Knowledge gap

One of the biggest challenges with Canary seed is a lack of good information. Exactly how many acres are grown each year? Hursh isn’t totally sure. Statistics Canada’s acreage numbers are rough guesstimates. Exactly how much product is available to the market in any given year? That’s a wild card as well. In years past, farmers stored Canary seed for long periods in hopes of capturing a market high.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, prices haven’t done the big spikes we sometimes saw earlier. We think that the $0.30 per pound pricing pulled long-stored Canary seed out of storage, since the market is acting like availability is much tighter than it was in the past. But to be honest, we just don’t know,” says Hursh.

Most acres are planted to itchy varieties including Keet and Cantate. Hairless (glabrous) varieties (CDC Maria, CDC Togo, CDC Bastia and, most recently, CDC Calvi and CDC Cibo) make production more comfortable, but produce lower yields than the itchy varieties. CDC Cibo is the first yellow-seeded variety registered, which may make it more popular for human food uses. CDC Lumio, a new hairless variety that will be available in limited quantities in 2021, is a high yielder that starts to bridge the yield gap between hairless and itchy varieties.

Canary seed agronomics

Canary seed is easy to grow and fairly widely adapted. It’s a lower input crop than most other cereals. While a potash application is recommended, the crop requires relatively low nitrogen. Canary seed can be a good alternative on acres prone to wheat midge.

The cereal isn’t recommended on flax stubble as the seed size is so similar that flax volunteers can’t be easily separated. (Hursh says quinclorac — registered by BASF as Facet and Farmers Business Network as Clever — is registered for use in Canary seed and can effectively control flax volunteers, but the field can’t be recropped to lentils in the next season).

  • Canary seed is a component of feed mixtures for caged and wild birds.
  • Canada is the top producer of Canary seed and almost all of it is grown in Saskatchewan.
  • The crop can pay well, but is susceptible to oversupply.
  • Canadian export values are around $100 million each year.
  • In recent years, Canary seed has ranged from $0.20 to $0.30 per pound.
  • An average yield in Saskatchewan ranges from 800 to 1,400 pounds per acre.

Because there is no post-emergent wild oat control available, producers should apply Avadex in the fall as a granular or in the spring as a granular or liquid.

“I’ve had people call me after they’ve seeded the crop to ask how to control wild oats. At that point, they can’t,” says Hursh.

One of Canary seed’s biggest benefits is that it generally does not degrade at harvest.

“Canary seed can be left until the last crop in at harvest because the seed isn’t harmed by weather and it doesn’t shatter. Growing Canary seed can lengthen your harvest window, which decreases harvest pressure,” says Hursh.

The Canary Seed Development Commission of Saskatchewan is currently working to bring Canary seed under the Canada Grain Act, likely by August. While that would impose a grading table, Hursh assures that the restrictions would be very minimal and wouldn’t affect most farmers. Importantly, coming under the Grain Act would offer producers payment protection.

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