Precision Planning for 2022’s canola crop

Experts discuss innovative techniques for a successful yield.

by Kristen Lutz

Coming out of the drought of 2021, western Canadian producers are very aware of the effects Mother Nature can and will have on their yields, especially in sensitive crops like canola.

The 2022 growing season offers new opportunities to producers with high commodity prices, and in many areas, increased soil moisture from snowmelt.

“There is more opportunity than most farms have seen in their existence, but there are more risks,” reports Ethan Gosling, certified crop advisor and Canadian sales manager with TELUS Agriculture.

Precision agriculture offers an opportunity to manage that opportunity and also the risks through more effective use of inputs including fertilizers and seeding. This may provide solutions for producing high yields.

Better Farming recently spoke with agronomy experts about some precision ag techniques that might work best for Prairie producers in the season ahead.

Seedbed prep

A well-prepared seedbed can improve emergence and early establishment of a crop. Preparing your seedbed this season is going to be dependent on the amount of moisture retained in your soil.

For regions still recovering from drought or having received minimal precipitation over the winter, no-till seeding implements or reduced heavy harrowing on fields is key to preserving moisture.

“For each inch of soil available water, canola produces about three bushels,” explains Gosling.

“We need to evaluate our historical management decisions, one of which is harrowing. If we can save about half an inch of moisture through reduced harrowing, it translates to about 1.5 bushels of canola. That is one decision that could contribute about $40 an acre to your bottom line.”

For areas that received good snowfall over the winter, excess moisture and ruts created by machinery are always a possibility.

“I’m in northeast Saskatchewan and we had a considerable amount of snow,” says Gosling. “It looks like we are going to have too much moisture when we are going to put our seed in the ground.

“So, soil moisture conservation is going to be less of a concern for us than in other regions.

“We are likely going to have to harrow the land to try and dry it out as much as possible for seeding and machinery accessibility.”

Typically, having an even stand is ideal when seeding canola to promote emergence and early establishment. No-till or reduced harrowing seeding implementations may bring concern about uneven spread of trash or crop residue remaining on the soil.

Unevenness in Field from Crop Residue
    Uneven residue and ruts from previous seasons need to be addressed prior to seeding. - Jason Casselman photo

For producers who continue to experience drought effects, this likely won’t be an issue.

“With last year’s dry conditions that were pretty widespread across Western Canada, the crop residue that was left was poor, and there probably weren’t a lot of areas that had issues with spreading residue,” explains Jason Casselman, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada.

“In our traditional rotations of cereal crop, residue that is coming out of the combine may not be chopped or evenly spread and we can have some variation across the field. This can affect canola emergence, decrease yield and increase losses.”

Canola Emerging in Field
    Research in Western Canada has shown that having a population of five to eight crops per square foot evenly across the whole field is optimal. - Canola Council of Canada photo

Casselman continues to mention that ruts in fields, caused by machinery on wet soil, will also need to be leveled prior to seeding.

Seeding rate

Variable rate seeding is a seeding rate that is aligned with a particular management zone within a field, and often an opportunity in cereal and pulse crops. Canola, however, needs to be managed differently. Empty space surrounding canola can cause the plant to branch. Branching can delay maturity and reduce yields.

“To have your crop high-yielding, we try and have a lot of robust main stems,” explains Casselman. “According to research that has been done in Western Canada, having a plant stand of five to eight crops per square foot evenly across the whole field is going to be optimum.”

Gosling agrees. “This is a great place to start. The best way to prove if it is working is to look back. If farmers go back in their field and looks at the stubble from the previous crop and looks at how many plants they were trying to target, versus how many viable plants they had, they are going to have a better understanding of their operation.”

The biggest variable when calculating seeding rate is mortality. Tougher growing conditions (for example, shorter seasons, insect pressure or competition from weeds) should be accounted for during seed rate.

“In those tougher growing conditions, a few more plants can help get that yield to 100 per cent,” says Casselman.

Finding your ideal seeding rate can be a bit of a balance. Gosling explains that these decisions need to be made based on your farm management practices. Considerations should be made to having enough plants to mitigate potential issues like flea beetles, weed competition, or frost.

Speaking with an agronomist and having a clear understanding of the challenges you face can set you up for success this growing season.

Fertility planning

Fertilizer can often improve plant growth and help achieve high yields. However, excess fertilizer may have the opposite results.

“Canola is a very small seed and very sensitive to things like salt index in fertilizer. That’s something that we really need to be even more aware of this year that we haven’t in the past because it can have a significant effect on germination,” explains Gosling.

“For fertilizer, we are recommending that growers do as much soil sampling as possible, taking inventory of the amount of nutrients that were left over in the field from last year,” recommends Casselman.

He explains that the lower yields caused by the drought in 2021 likely have left fertility in the soil that could be used this growing season.

Gosling agrees. “The other thing we are seeing is a significant amount of variability between fields, and beyond that, we are seeing a significant variability between management zones within the field.”

Gosling stresses that not all soil samples or variable rate processes are equal.

“It is really important to understand the process that your provider is utilizing.

“For me, I would say look at a partner that has a process, versus a random soil sampling pattern.

“A two depth soil sample is very important – some of those mobile nutrients from the past season may be found at the second depth.

“What lab are you sending it to, and what parameters are they testing for? Who will you be working with to interpret these results and create a plan with your farm? Is it a collaborative approach?

“And the next piece of it is – how do you make this plan fit with your operation?”

Split application throughout the season can also be another approach for fertility management.

“Put on fertility up-front to get the crop to a certain point, and then re-evaluate if we need to continue feeding that crop throughout the growing season. We are working with farmers to see if this is a possibility on their farm,” says Casselman.

Gosling agrees, but adds that this might be a tight window of opportunity. “With split application, there is a logistical challenge sometimes. There can be equipment restrictions and time management issues.

“It’s a pretty narrow window and normally we are doing other things on the farm at that time.”

“This year comes with a little bit of uncertainty with the products being in short supply and input prices being high. But the opportunity for canola growers is still high this year,” says Casselman.

Getting a good crop established and maintaining it throughout the growing season will allow producers to take advantage of the high commodity prices.

“There are other tools available that farmers can look at to manage risks. It’s about making decisions without emotion that’s best for your farm based on your plans and not your neighbours’,” says Gosling. BF

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