Ontario Grain Farmer April/May 2024

12 Agronomy Alternative rotation options IMPROVING SOIL HEALTH AND SUSTAINABILITY Ontario Grain Farmer DECLINING COMMODITY PRICES OFTEN HAVE GROWERS ASKING ABOUT OTHER OPTIONS, yet there’s often more to explore with crop alternatives. Spreading workloads, diversifying operations, or lowering risk are a few reasons, while some growers look to lengthen rotations, improve soil health, or improve the sustainability of their farms. Canola, edible beans, and forages occupy that first level of alternatives for growers wanting to broaden their horizons. The good news is they provide excellent market potential, including solid “grown-in-Ontario” opportunities. CANOLA PLUSES: good pricing, increased demand for winter hybrids, spreading workloads, volumebased commodity, increasing market demand in biofuels. CAUTIONS: only one available winter hybrid, fewer weed control options, familiarity with seed sizes and seeding rates. Last November, a meeting of the Ontario Canola Growers Association provided important insights on 2023 production. According to Agricorp, insured acres in the province were the highest since 2012, with more than 25,000 acres of spring canola and a jump in winter canola acres — to 11,500 seeded last fall. In total, 2023 acres totalled roughly 44,000 acres. As Meghan Moran has been telling people, canola can be a profitable crop, provided new growers are made aware of its challenges. Of the three primary alternatives, it’s the least sensitive to quality parameters and is the likeliest fit for a conventional rotation of corn, soybeans, and wheat. “The real reason for growing canola is to diversify risk,” says Moran, canola and edible bean specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). She acknowledges there have been more questions about alternatives since commodity prices began declining last year. “That can mean breaking pest cycles or mixing up herbicide timing — especially with winterplanted canola and different herbicide products that can help mitigate or delay herbicide-resistant weeds.” She doesn’t believe growers would favour starting with spring canola, especially south of Simcoe County. The rush of spring planting has less effect on winter canola — and edible beans — and both are harvested earlier. “There may be some adjustments to equipment, like operators learning how to set up their planter for smaller seeds or buying after-market canola plates,” adds Moran. “We can use a drill, but we have to ratchet that seeding rate down as much as we can.” In marketing winter canola crops, Bunge Milling in Hamilton and Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) in Windsor are the primary choices, with ADM reportedly willing to take as much non-GMO Mercedes as possible. The longterm opportunities for renewable fuels also favour canola. FINDING THE FIT FOR THE GROWER Ian Toll has been growing canola for five years, earning a second-place finish in the 2023 Canola Challenge, yielding 5,119 pounds per acre of winter canola. The Blenheim-area grower’s rotation includes winter wheat, corn, and soybeans, along with hay and rye, to feed his 50 beef cattle finishers and more than 600 ewes. His biggest challenge is harvesting winter wheat and then plowing and working the land in time for canola planting by mid-September. “But it yields great and doesn’t seem to matter how big it gets in the fall — it doesn’t bolt,” says Toll, who farms with his two sons. “The price is up and down with other crops we grow, but it does seem to have more profit at the end of the season. It requires more scouting and more maintenance, but we also double-crop soybeans to help add dollars to that field.” He purchased a planter just for canola, echoing Moran’s comments about special plates and rollers needed with an air seeder or a planter. The only other concern he expresses is the availability of only one winter canola hybrid. It isn’t a huge challenge given the low number of acres for now, but with expected increases, demand for more hybrids will rise. “It’s a fit in our area, but start out slow and increase acres over a couple of years,” advises Toll. “The root system is outstanding, and it helps break up the soil. We can see a plus in corn bushels the following year.” EDIBLE BEANS PLUSES: higher profitability (compared to soybeans), spreading workloads, equipment compatibility (with small-seeded white, black and adzukis), and good demand for overseas export markets. CAUTIONS: grown primarily under contract, quality-based market, higher cost of production (including more sprayer passes), fewer herbicide options, need for specialized equipment (with large-seed beans like cranberry and kidneys). Last October, Moran penned an article for OMAFRA’s website, touting the profitability of dry beans versus soybeans. Despite higher cost of production figures ($409 per acre for crush soybeans, $482 for IP soybeans and $679 for white, black or adzuki beans), edible bean profitability was higher.