Canola’s uncertain season

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Canola wasn’t even invented when folk artist Pete Seeger sang his way to fame in the early 1960s asking “where have all the flowers gone?”

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Canola wasn’t even invented when folk artist Pete Seeger sang his way to fame in the early 1960s asking “where have all the flowers gone?”

However, the question is resonating with a few farmers as this year’s growing season plays out across the Prairies.

True the region is awash in yellow canola blooms as usual, but look a little closer and all is not right with Canada’s signature oilseed crop. There are reports trickling in from across the West that canola plants in some fields dropping their flowers before forming those valuable oilseed pods.

This has happened before. Last year it was pinned to the extraordinarily hot weather during the flowering stage, which causes the phenomenon known as “heat blast.”

But this year, with more than adequate moisture and a slightly cooler-than-average growing season to date, it’s been bit of a mystery as to why the canola crop is struggling. Social media is rife with speculation, ranging from weather to insect pests to the decline in pollinator populations and even a few conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure.

Adding to the uncertainty is a shortage of herbicides such as glufosinate and glyphosate this year, which are tied to the herbicide-tolerant varieties farmers have in their fields. That’s given the weeds an opportunity to leap ahead of their crop, setting the stage for yield reductions and harvest issues.

The agronomy team with the Canola Council of Canada has been monitoring the situation and concluded in this week’s newsletter that in the fields most affected by the dropped flowers, the crop is suffering from the after effects of a dry, cooler-than-normal spring.

“After inspecting fields and consulting with plant physiologists, we believe the failure to flower and lack of normal pod development is caused by plants experiencing a hormone imbalance following early season environmental stress,” it said. “Different stress factors or combinations of stress factors (from cold to heat to moisture challenges) likely caused similar symptoms in different areas.”

The council bulletin cautions that while there is evidence of insect pests such as lygus bugs in some of the fields inspected, that’s not what is causing the aborted flowers. In other words, the solution won’t be found in expensive pesticide or other remedial treatments. “We are not aware of any crop protection or fertilizer products that can more quickly alleviate these symptoms,” it says.

The council is advising farmers not to panic if the crop is looking a bit ragged right now.

“Canola plants do seem to outgrow these peculiar symptoms, resuming normal bud and flower formation and going on to produce reasonable yield,” the council says.

That’s asking farmers to take a huge leap of faith. The late planting season combined with a huge spike in production costs is already making this year’s crop one of the most expensive they’ve ever tried to grow.

But Curtis Rempel, the council’s vice president of crop production and innovation said that’s all the more reason to stay steady on the course for production decisions.

“Don’t spend money on things that won’t give you an economic return,” Rempel said. “Look at the yield potential of the crop.”

Rempel said the canola plant has a remarkable ability to recover from early season stresses. Farmers’ best course of action is base their management decisions on economic thresholds and yield potential.

The end of the drought has also meant the return of a multitude of plant diseases that thrive in warm, humid conditions. These are popping up in canola, cereals and in fields of peas and lentils.

Conditions are perfect for the for the development of cereal diseases such as fusarium head blight. Fusarium can cripple yields and destroy end use quality — in some cases, making the grain unusable even for livestock feed.

That said, industry observers have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly the crops generally are catching up after the delayed seeding. The fields are taking full advantage of the long days, warm nights and plentiful moisture. If this continues, the yields from the productive areas of the fields could well compensate for the low-spot acres lost to excess moisture.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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