A growing market for biodiesel fuels is heating up interest in canola among Texas producers.
Dr. Brent Bean, Texas Cooperative Extension agronomist here, said he quit participating in the National Winter Canola Variety Trials some time back when interest waned. But he's participating once again due to calls from several producers.
David Bordovsky, Texas Agriculture Experiment Station research scientist in Chillicothe, said he hasn't had a lot of producer interest, but he expects his work in the national variety trials will play a role as canola becomes a larger part of the growing biodiesel industry.
Canola's industrial use began as a lubricant for machinery during World War II. In the 1970s, it was developed more for human consumption and that's when Kansas State University began playing an active role. Kansas State's canola breeding program is the lead agency in the National Winter Canola Variety Trials, said Cindy LaBarge, assistant scientist.
K-State has primarily focused on human consumption in the past, she said, but the biodiesel end started picking up in the past couple years, LeBarge said.
"Especially with the higher fuel prices, I think people are starting to look for alternative fuel sources and biodiesel is really catching on," she said.
Producers are shifting their attitudes also, realizing canola is a crop they might make more profit from than wheat. And they don't have to change equipment, LaBarge said.
Dr. Bill Heer, Kansas State University agronomist in Hutchinson, Kan., said some of the interest is because canola is slightly better than soybeans because of higher oil yields. Soybean oil also is more expensive, because more of it is used in edible food. As more players enter the marketplace for canola, with competition between the food and biodiesel markets, producers can expect even better prices with the canola, Heer said.
This year, several producers have planted circles of canola in the Dumas and Dalhart areas in the northwest corner of the Panhandle. With this in mind, Bean planted his 40-variety trial near Dalhart. But he said producer interest was expressed as far south as Floydada.
The majority of canola is planted in Canada and the northern U.S., so the goal of the trials will be to find varieties suited to this region's climate, Bean said.
"We used to grow a few acres of canola around here in the late 80s, early 90s," he said. "But the price just wasn't there to make it competitive if you had to haul it."
At that time, the Frito Lay plant in Hereford and an oil mill near Quanah were taking the canola from producers in the Hereford and Wellington areas, Bean said.
Where the producers will take their seed to be processed now is uncertain, he said, but some producers have expressed interest in starting a crushing plant.
One good thing now is there is Roundup Ready canola, Bean said. Previously, herbicide treatments were limited.
Canola is grown on a similar time line as wheat and is harvested with a combine, he said. Yields of around 3,500 pounds to the acre are hoped for under irrigation, without any winter grazing, Bean said.
Canola is a broadleaf crop, rather than a grass like wheat, sorghum and corn, he said. It is always beneficial to the soil to rotate grass and broadleaf crops.
Bordovsky said growing canola presents some problems. Getting a stand can be difficult due to the small seeds. The seeds also can be lost through any holes in the combine or truck after harvest. And, canola has a tendency to shatter at harvest, he said.
Canola makes a rosette in the fall. The flower stalk that shoots up in the spring starts blooming around mid-March and early April. As long as the heat doesn't stop it, and it has plenty of moisture, it will keep blooming and get taller, Bordovsky said. "The taller it is, the more pods you have and the higher the yield," he said.
Canola is a rapeseed, which is part of the mustard family. Rapeseed oil can't be used for human consumption due to high amounts of erucic acid, Bordovsky said.
However, the Food and Drug Administration approved it for food production in the U.S. when researchers bred varieties low in erucic acid. To distinguish these varieties from rapeseed, they coined the name canola, he said.
Bordovsky worked with canola at the Munday research facilities, as well as three years at Chillicothe. His work serves as a screening trial primarily, but he said the crop will work well for someone who has center pivot, which allows a light watering. With is no market in the immediate area, it is not grown on any significant basis, he said. Contracts with a crusher are needed, as well as an oil mill if it were to be considered for human consumption.
Another concern for growing canola is weather.
"With the way our harvest weather can get, it can go from too green on Friday to too late by Monday," Bordovsky said. "The wind and temperatures dry it down in a hurry. When that happens, it's subject to the pods shattering." Sometimes just a hard beating rain can shatter 40 percent of it, he said.
Bean said shatter-resistance will be one factor he screens varieties on in his trials, as well as winter hardiness. Regardless of the possible production problems, both Bordovsky and Bean agreed if the market is pumped up by the growing biodiesel industry, producers around the region could soon be seriously looking at canola as an alternative crop once again.