Flax: An Option to Extend Your Rotation

Benefits of this ‘old friend’ do seem to outweigh the challenges for many

By Stacy Berry

Although flax has been used in agriculture for over 10,000 years, it is a relatively novel crop to many farmers throughout the Prairies.

Flax is the oldest natural fibre grown in agrarian societies for multiple uses such as linen, a health food, animal feed, and for industry. In fact, flax was one of the first crops brought to Canada as early as the 1600s. “Flax is a million-acre crop in Western Canada with many opportunities,” according to Wayne Thompson, president of the Flax Council of Canada. This is a fraction compared to other cash crops like barley (approximately 8.3 million acres) or canola (approximately 20 million).

So what is flax? Flax, Linum usitatissimum, is a self-pollinated flowering plant that is well adapted to temperate climates, like Canada’s Prairies. In fact, “nearly all of the million acres of flax in Canada are grown in the Prairies,” says Thompson. It is well known for its pretty blue flowers and the flat, glossy brown seeds shaped like apple pips.

Flax Seed Field
    Wayne Thompson photo

Depending on environmental conditions, flax grows to between 0.5 to 1.2 metres tall over 90 to 120 days and prefers medium to heavy textured soils. It has a shallow and restricted root system, which means moisture and nutrient access can be yield-limiting. This means that moisture and nutrient access can be yield-limiting.

Acheson, Alta. producer Chett Wild has a simple explanation why he decided to add flax to his rotation, which sums up numerous other farmers’ thoughts: “I needed to extend my rotation, and I knew it would grow here.”

Flax is a totally different plant from other cash crops like canola, wheat, barley, and peas. Adding a different crop to your rotation interrupts weed, insect, and disease cycles, which is a big reason why Humboldt, Sask. producer Patricia Lung has flax in her rotation.

“Flax has completely different pests and weeds than our other crops,” says Lung. This interruption improves crop growth and lowers input costs.

Rotation order is important for flax production and especially should not be grown after canola.

This consideration is related to flax’s restricted root system. Canola reduces the population of soil arbuscular mycorrhizae (a type of crucial root fungi, especially for crops with restricted root systems, like flax); as canola straw degrades, it releases phytotoxic (toxic to other plants) compounds that flax is sensitive to; and canola depletes the easy access areas of soil of nitrogen and moisture.

Flax will also do poorly if it is grown on its own stubble; studies have shown that flax on flax stubble provided low yield outcomes – even lower than flax on canola.

For pest and disease management, the Flax Council of Canada recommends at least three years between flax crops.

Two Manitoba growers, Nick Matheson and Dean Buchanan, both stress that flax is a weak competitor, so weed control is important for flax production. Buchanan, who is based in Crystal City, Man., says “lady’s thumb is a flax grower’s worst enemy. That, and millet is a pain, too.” Similarly, Matheson, who farms in Stonewall, Man., claims “grassy weeds are the bane of my flax’s existence.”

Lung agrees that high weed populations will have a large impact on yield due to weeds sucking up the moisture and nutrients. However, despite that, “the crop inputs needed for flax are quite low, and flax can pencil out as one of the highest netting cash crop options.” It is a hardy plant when it comes to nutrition and can produce without much aid.

Wild agrees that flax is hardy, but as he and other flax growers know, “flax does respond to nutrition.”

Watrous, Sask. grower Greg Sundquist says similarly, “treat it well, and fertilize appropriately. Flax responds to nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Richard Nordstrom, a now-retired farmer from Viking, Alta., preferred “a foliar application of micronutrients to a flax crop since that small root system can struggle to reach valuable soil nutrition.”

The average yield seen for farmers ranges between 15 to 30 bushels per acre; Matheson has seen some very strong yields north of 40 bushels per acre. Matheson enjoys experimenting with flax to attain higher yields annually. His trick? “Flax doesn’t like too much nutrition too close. Seed-place a little, and then make sure the rest is pooled close, but not too close. You don’t want to overwhelm the seed.”

Aiming for a high yield could work in Matheson’s favour as flax prices are expected to remain around $25/bushel into the fall of 2022. However, the price will vary, and many farmers say they’re willing to hold their harvest in the bin until they get a higher price.

When it comes to seeding, flax is like other cash crops: You want to seed clean, good quality seeds without damage, and “plant with your cleanest, richest field,” says Matheson.

Your aim is 300 to 400 plants/yard2 (35 to 40 lb/ac seeding), although Nordstrom recommends even either heavier rates or narrower rows. “With lower rates, I seeded with eight-inch spacing instead of 12-inch, and I’ve also tried rates as high as 50 or 60 lb/ac. Both worked well – an individual flax plant just can’t reach all the nutrients, so put more plants out there.”

Unlike other cash crops, flax seeds are quite small, and flax seedlings are feeble, so don’t expect them to overcome soil crusting or deep seeding. On the other hand, as Matheson has learned, “flax can handle cooler soils and small frosts, so you can seed flax pretty early to save time for other crops that need later seeding.” Alternatively, a farmer can seed later, and harvest the crop later. In Lung’s case, “flax is the last to seed and the last to harvest.”

Flax shows equal or better yields on reduced tillage systems, when compared to conventional tillage.

Regardless, tillage can be an issue for flax, Wild says. “Straight cut, and get yourself a disc drill to direct seed,” he suggests. “Otherwise all the straw piles up, and you have to burn it.”

Indeed, a reason farmers may avoid growing flax is straw management.

Monika Benoit, who farms near High Prairie, Alta., is considering adding flax. “It’s on our list to try but … (we’re) concerned about the straw management.”

Spoonful of Flax seeds
    Flax can be used as linen, a health food, and animal fee, among other things. - stock.adobe.com/Arletta cwalina/EyeEm photo

Benoit’s concerns are well placed, and most producers who do grow flax agree that straw management is the main challenge. Flax is slow to break down – the reason why it is used to make linen (a hardy and long-lasting material). Even after baling flax off the field, there is often still enough fibre on the land to make tillage and harrowing difficult.

Flax Seed Plant on Folded Linen
    Flax is used to make linen because it’s slow to break down. - stock.adobe.com/natagolubnycha photo

If you don’t have the right equipment already, adding machinery to your fleet can be a financial challenge. As well, if tillage is part of your plan, controlled burning will likely be necessary. The leftover straw can pile up around the field, making it difficult for next year’s crop to establish.

As a northern producer, Benoit additionally notes that “the fact that flax is a long-season crop is also concerning.” She simply might not have the time for flax to mature in a bad year (with a slow spring and a fast fall). And as Lung unfortunately learned the hard way, “don’t be pushy about harvest. Running flax through a dryer has consequences – makes the flax light and reduces your oil profile. Wait to harvest until it's mature.”

Outside of straw management, Thompson acknowledges that one obstacle is simply that there are fewer agronomic resources out there for flax than other cash crops.

Fortunately, “the producer associations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan provide agronomic resources and information for farmers so they have information to produce a profitable flax crop.”

In fact, Lung’s advice to potential flax growers is: “There are great online resources, and growers should read them.”

Other obstacles include “the additional weed-control needs, and marketing. Flax is a relatively niche crop, and farmers must be prepared to shop around and market their crop,” says Thompson.

But many flax growers, are pleased with their decisions.

Nordstrom listened to stories of his father’s struggle with flax during the war effort in the ’40s, and carried on, developing techniques to manage it more easily. Nordstrom says he learned to love flax so much that he mischievously “leaned into the stories of plugged feederhouses, and having to cut the flax wads with a chainsaw ... to discourage neighbours from growing flax – to keep that market better for me!”

Aspiring flax growers should direct seed, straight cut, and avoid tillage or harrowing.

Buchanan has been successful with direct seeding and direct seeds. In his farming career he says, “I’ve only needed to burn flax residue twice that I can recall.”

Although Buchanan usually straight cuts, last year he had a “tremendous regrowth of the flax plants,” so rather than desiccate, he swathed, and it was manageable. He swathed high, combined, then “direct seeded into the foot-tall stubble.”

Buchanan has grown flax his entire farming career. He encourages farmers to take up flax production but “start small. Don’t sow the whole farm and overwhelm yourself.”

Sundquist reminds potential growers to “research and get the new genetics. There are some great new varieties out there.”

Nordstrom further advises that “flax needs to be dry-dry-dry.

“Prepare to shut down early in the evening, or harvest while it’s frosted – otherwise, flax is like a magnet to moisture and will plug your machines almost instantly.”

Lastly, in a sentiment that is shared by other flax producers, Nordstrom encourages that “growers cannot be afraid to ask questions.

“When you see a good crop, make friends with that farmer. Find out what works for them, and what hasn’t worked.”

To manage straw, the options are wide-ranging.

The most common solution is burning the straw in field, however there are some creative uses for the straw. One farmer used the flax bales for feed – it extended his rations on a tight year, and in the wet spring he built paths for his cows to travel on. Another farmer uses his bales to build actual roads; the flax straw acts as a net to hold the gravel up. One farmer sold his flax bales to a neighbour, to build a riding arena with. Another farmer used the flax straw to insulate his shop, and as wind breaks. Yet another sells his flax bales in small squares for acreage owners to insulate their septic tanks.

There are additional markets in the bio-fibre industry, yet marketing flax as a biofibre isn’t easy – in North America, flax is produced almost exclusively for food. However, an opportunity for flax straw is now available to producers on the Prairies. Startup Prairie Clean Energy, founded by Trevor Thomas, is looking to “aggregate and pelletize flax straw to be used as bio-fuel,” says Mark Cooper, CEO. This is a form of green energy produced right here on the Prairies, and a great way to use up what is – to most – a waste product.

There is also hope to speed up some flax straw breakdown.

Lana Shaw with the Southeast Research Farm near Redvers, Sask., is researching flax and chickpea intercropping in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. She chose these two crops because chickpeas and flax are both associated with the same mycorrhizae fungi; their seeds are very different sizes, making them easy to separate; and they have some overlap in registered herbicides.

The results are coming back positive. The combination of straw type eases straw management and yields are great for both crops, plus getting the usual benefits of intercropping.

Flax has been around since the beginning of agriculture, but to many in the Prairies, it is considered a foreign crop. Thompson is hopeful for the future of flax and believes that flax acreage will increase. “Canada is a trusted source of flax worldwide. We continue to grow high quality and safe flax that competes in an increasingly competitive world market.”

To those who grow it, the benefits – great pricing, low input needs, and an extension to the crop rotation – outweigh the cons (adjusting for managing straw). However, each farmer knows their operation and what can fit in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re looking for a changeup, maybe flax is just the right addition. BF

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