- When soil conditions line up, the benefits of canola can outweigh the risks
- Canola offers options for both disease breaks and weed control, which could be important after much rain in 2022
- High prices mean it could be a profitable alternative
With good soil moisture profiles across north-western New South Wales and southern Queensland, and potentially high weed burdens, canola could be considered a potentially valuable break crop this coming winter growing season.
CSIRO farming systems scientist Dr Lindsay Bell says that although canola is often considered a risky option in northern areas, there are upsides to planting it in certain situations.
“The economics of canola is not far off the money compared to cereals with November 2022 prices in the $700 to $750/tonne range. While in challenging seasonal conditions, canola is not as reliable as winter cereals, with current high prices and favourable soil water conditions it can be a highly profitable alternative.”
Across nine experimental years, research has found that canola gross margins were on average $140 per hectare per year less than wheat. Under higher canola prices there was little difference in average returns. However, in better growing seasons, canola’s profitability could exceed that of winter cereals.
For example, in 2021 on the Darling Downs, canola yielded 3t/ha and returned $450/ha more than wheat, even under long-term prices.
“Farming systems experiments show that there is significant potential for canola to be grown in these northern areas. But to do that effectively, certain things need to line up, a checklist that needs to be ticked off.”
Dr Bell says canola will not suit all situations. “Several aspects need to line up to mitigate risk and maximise benefits in northern farming systems.”
Critical aspects to consider include:
- soil water at sowing – a threshold of greater than 150 millimetres of available water in most locations is needed to mitigate the risk of low crop yields;
- sowing window – understand your optimal sowing window to manage the risk of frost and heat stress during critical periods;
- disease or weed issues – canola is best used where benefits will be reaped in subsequent years. For example, where there may be winter grass problems, high crown rot situations or high Pratylenchus thornei nematode populations;
- nitrogen – situations with low starting soil nitrogen should be avoided because this will be difficult to address in northern systems with applied fertiliser nitrogen at sowing or in-season;
- preceding crops – be wary of following crops that host Sclerotinia, which increases disease risk;
- following crops – use canola leading into disease-sensitive crops/varieties, nitrogen availability is likely to be a little higher than after cereals, consider following with another break crop; in other words, a ‘double-break’ to ‘reset’ the system; and
- the double-break system – this is excellent for managing nitrogen, certain diseases and grass weeds. However, this approach leaves low ground cover and this can impact on subsequent water capture and storage.
“If you can tick off this checklist, then you can say, ok, the conditions are right to maximise the benefits and mitigate risks for growing canola,” Dr Bell says.
It is worth noting, he says, that growing canola costs a little bit more than growing a cereal crop. “This is not earth-shattering information and there are different logistics, machinery harvest and windrowing times to consider.”
Agronomist Brad Coleman, who is based at Rowena, west of Moree in NSW, says some of his clients are regular canola growers and a few others are becoming more interested in this crop. “We call it a seasonal crop around here because we don’t always have the necessary prerequisites to plant it, therefore it is not planted every year.”
Mr Coleman says a full moisture profile is needed – a minimum of 150mm, but 200mm is preferable.
“Also, we have quite a strict planting window in April. And as canola is not suited to deep moisture seeking, good surface moisture during that month is also a requirement.
“Once these two criteria are met, and the crop’s high nitrogen requirements are addressed, it is a great rotational crop. Canola offers a good disease and weed break and is gaining more interest due to the lack of demand for our main winter break crops – chickpeas and faba beans.”
One of Mr Coleman’s clients took the plunge in 2022 and is growing 1100 hectares of canola for the first time.
Mr Coleman says it was a rotational decision. “He didn’t want to plant more wheat. That would have meant back-to-back cereals and with that comes disease and weed management risks. Chickpea prices weren’t good, and the risk of waterlogging was also a deterrent to growing them, so canola was considered.”
Canola meant being able to access a different group of weed control chemicals. Additionally, the terms and conditions were appealing. With delivery into Narrabri, there was no need for storage and, importantly, the price was very encouraging.
Mr Coleman says the grower would be keen again next season.
Even if the price was not as high, he has indicated he would be interested in growing it if soil moisture conditions warrant. It allows for planting and harvesting to be spread out and provides another rotational option.
Another client says that although canola can be hard on nitrogen, the wheat grown after a canola crop can often be his best. He also chose canola instead of chickpeas or more area to faba beans this year.
However, others are still cautious. Moree-based agronomist Garry Onus says many of his clients are wary because of nitrogen costs. “For many of them, the cost of nitrogen is too high for them to consider canola. Canola likes nitrogen.”
He adds that although nitrogen and moisture requirements can be catered for, “we need to keep in mind that it is often the early heat in spring that can take some of the cream out of the crop. We haven’t had that heat in the last two years but I’m sure it will return.
“I think if pulses sort themselves out and price improves, most growers will be back into chickpeas. Many would err on the side of caution with canola. At the moment, though, many of them are underwater so that is the first concern.”
There are a range of valuable resources for growers to guide canola crop management. See Adding value to Australia's canola industry.