Canola a boost to farm profitability

Canola a boost to farm profitability in Western Australia


Canola proves an integral rotational tool.


Canola has become an integral rotational tool, providing a disease break for cereal crops and allowing for better weed-management systems.

As a cash crop, it is reliably profitable, which explains why the area planted to the crop across Australias grain-growing regions has increased by almost 2.5 million hectares in less than 30 years.

About 1.4 million hectares, or almost 60 per cent of Australias total canola plantings, are sown in Western Australia alone, with non-wetting, acidic soils across much of WAs grainbelt limiting other profitable break crop options.

Last year WA hosted the 20th Australian Research Assembly on Brassicas (AusCanola 2018), bringing together researchers, breeders, industry representatives and growers from around the globe to discuss advances in canola research.

GRDC Western Panel member and chair of the Grains Industry Association of WA oilseeds council Michael Lamond believes the potential of canola as a break crop has not yet been fully realised, with agronomy practices still to catch up to the success of breeding efforts.

In WAs northern port zone, almost two-thirds of canola deliveries in 2017 were GM. - Michael Lamond

Mr Lamond told the conference canola was pushing out into the lower-rainfall regions, with hybrid varieties allowing for strong establishment and in-season growth in these more hostile conditions, as well as giving growers greater ability to manage weeds without residual issues in cereals the following season.

But he said the potential of canola, in all rainfall regions, was yet to be expressed and better agronomy, matched to specific canola types and varieties, would see significant improvement in yields in coming years.

With the introduction of Roundup® Ready GM and hybrid canola varieties, he said, growers in the northern regions of WA were capitalising on the benefits of a double glyphosate knock to attack weed problems.

In WAs northern port zone, almost two-thirds of canola deliveries in 2017 were GM, he told delegates.

In contrast to this, there were almost no GM deliveries in the Esperance zone in that same year, with the majority of canola grown in this region being open pollinated.

Mr Lamond chaired a panel session with three long-term canola growers from different rainfall zones, who outlined their challenges and successes with the crop over the past few decades.

While the growers have had very different experiences with canola, they agree the crop is now an integral part of their grain rotation.

  • More information: Michael Lamond, 0408 056 662

Tim Critch – MULLEWA

In the lower-rainfall regions, canola needs to be planted by the end of April to have any opportunity to yield well in such a dry climate.

Despite this, Mullewa, WA, grower Tim Critch believes canola is an important tool for his cropping business, particularly to control grasses and other weeds.

The amount of canola we plant each year can be determined by the summer rain we receive and how much moisture we think is already in the subsoil, Tim told the conference.

If we receive a lot of summer rain, its usually a good year to grow canola although, as we discovered in 2017, you also need that follow-up rain to get the plant up and out of the ground early to give it a chance of yielding well.

Traditionally, this northern region of WAs cropping belt has been reliant on lupins to provide the break for the cereal crops, but it was not until 2017 that the Critches reintroduced the legume into their system.

Prior to that they had not included lupins in their rotation for the previous decade.

Canola had taken the place of lupins, not just for its profitability as a cash crop but, perhaps more importantly, as a weed-control tool to clean up paddocks ready for subsequent cereal crops.

This area is a big lupin-growing region, but we didnt put lupins back into the system until 2017 because of the build-up of grasses in the paddocks, Tim said.

Previously, putting all these grassy paddocks into canola allowed us to clean up the paddocks and get on top of those particular weeds, so now we can include lupins in our program again.

Tim thinks the issue of weed control will see more and more canola introduced into grain businesses in this northern area in coming years.

Half of his canola program is open-pollinated ATR Bonito, while the other half is Roundup® Ready GM varieties.

We introduced GM canola into the system in 2013 purely to control the wild radish, and that proved a successful tool for us, Tim said.

But canola is a tricky crop and we will often have a problem with diamondback moth and green peach aphid towards the end of the season. Even a poor crop has to be looked after right until the end otherwise there is no point harvesting it.

Tim receives an average of 250 millimetres of growing-season rainfall. In 2018, his property received 200mm during the growing season. Average long-term yields for canola are about one tonne per hectare but with a soft finish Tim hopes to achieve between 1.2 and 1.4t/ha.

The business has 17,000ha, of which about one-third is planted to canola.

Guydon Boyle – YORK

York, WA, grower Guydon Boyle relies heavily on canola to control weeds such as wild oats, brome grass and ryegrass, particularly in wetter years such as 2018.

Like Tim, Guydon is convinced the success of canola crops in his area lies with early sowing and early germination.

In 2017, when we didnt receive opening rains until July, we were very nervous, Guydon said.

We sowed our canola in early April, but we didnt see a good germination until July.

Quite opposite to this, 2018 was a very wet year for the York district, with more than 300 millimetres received during the growing season.

What we saw last year, with the increased in-season rainfall, was a lot of late-germinating weeds, Guydon said.

Even though we have a double-knock system we still have no residual herbicide activity in the Roundup® Ready GM canola system, which then creates a problem for us with weeds setting seeds for the following wheat crop.

The Boyles moved away from using atrazine because of problems with resistance in wild radish.In the future we are going to have to look at some of these stacked varieties that will give us some herbicide residual to control those later weeds, such as a Roundup®/imidazolinone-tolerant variety. It also allows us to increase our barley hectares without fear of residual issues, he said.

York is an old farming area so that carries with it some resistance issues.

As a result of this, the Boyles rely on canola and hay in their rotation to attack this weed challenge.

But hay has its own problems because what we are finding now is that we are selecting for prostrate weeds when we cut the hay and the shorter plants are surviving, so we are having to deal with this new challenge by changing our harvest weed-seed management, he said.

Spraying for disease, particularly sclerotinia towards the end of the season, is another important strategy for the Boyles.

Our area seems to be a bit of a hot spot for sclerotinia and no matter how much we spray, it still seems to have an impact on yields, Guydon said.

We are now looking at spraying earlier than the standard 25 to 30 per cent flowering stage so the fungicide can get down into the canopy at an earlier stage to keep the plants greener for longer.

The Boyles have also deep-ripped large areas of their property in an attempt to alleviate water-repellent soils. Canola fits well into this long-term soil amelioration program.

We are doing a lot of deep-ripping to try and manage our water-repellent soils, soil acidity and hardpan issues in the gravel profiles, Guydon said.

Deep-ripped paddocks allow us to sow the canola shallow and early.

If we wait to sow into a wet profile we dont get the same vigour or yield response.

Guydon expects average annual yields of about 1.9t/ha, with oil content of 48 per cent.

Roger Bilney – KOJONUP

Kojonup, WA, grower Roger Bilneys family has been growing canola for more than three decades.

Despite this long-term commitment, Roger said they were still refining the agronomy package to embrace new varieties, technologies and a changing climate.

My brother and I started growing rapeseed back in 1987, but its really only been in the last year or two that we have had the confidence to dry-sow our crops, Roger told the conference.

Unfortunately, in 1987 it was the lowest recorded rainfall in Kojonup we had just 300 millimetres for the year coupled with our very different farming systems back then, and we only achieved 900 kilograms per hectare, with a gross value of $211/ha.

These days, canola is worth about three times that figure and, in stark contrast to their first attempt at growing rapeseed, the Bilneys averaged 2.32t/ha for their canola in 2017.

That 1987 outcome was pretty hard for the business to swallow, but Roger said even back then he could see the long-term economic benefits of keeping canola in the system.

Roger is an eternal optimist and he believes agriculture now is a sustainable and profitable industry to be involved in. Back then, 30 per cent of our gross income was taken care of by our interest bill, so it was a very different economic landscape to what we are experiencing today, he said.

We are seeing very different levels of profitability in our industry today and I believe agriculture has a vibrant future no matter which region of the state you operate in.

We are seeing very different levels of profitability in our industry today and I believe agriculture has a vibrant future no matter which region of the state you operate in. - Roger Bilney

Roger has been keeping a detailed record of all his canola statistics since that first crop back in 1987. He said canola had proven its worth in their mixed-farming system in most seasons.

In 1997 the Bilneys five-year average for canola was 1.55t/ha and wheat was 2.83t/ha. By 2017 this had increased to 1.96t/ha for canola and 3.6t/ha for wheat.

Roger believes growers in the higher-rainfall, mixed-farming region have been reaping the rewards of the innovation shown by growers in the northern and central wheatbelt regions in managing the challenges of pests and diseases in a variable climate.

We have had the advantage that if anything is going to go wrong, it will go wrong in the northern wheatbelt first and we can then use this learning in our area, he said.

For example, in 2018 we started dry-seeding on 15 April, and I know other growers in our area are also moving their sowing start dates earlier to capture the yield benefits weve seen in areas north of us.

Roger said he suspected there was another half a tonne left in the system by sowing early and getting the agronomy package right.

It might take us 10 years to get 2.5t/ha as a rolling five-year average because of climate variability, but more and more I think we will achieve this by using the advanced farming system strategies that the northern growers have been relying on for many years, he said.

He told the conference while many growers in the northern and central wheatbelt had been spraying for sclerotinia for some years, 2017 was the first season their business sprayed for the invasive fungus.

We saw both increased yield and oil content from that spray application and so in 2018 we have invested in spraying the majority of the crop, he said.

But he said the genetics of the crop were now starting to become a challenge, with tall, robust plant biomass making it difficult for late-season spray passes.

In our high-rainfall zone, the crops are so bulky that we have difficulty getting the sprayer over the crop later in the season, and its highly unlikely that the fungicide is getting right down into the canopy, Roger said.

In our region, canola crops can be up around two metres high by the end of the season, which also makes swathing very difficult so getting the canola genetics right for higher-rainfall regions is going to be critical in determining the long-term success of the crop here.