Canola falters at the border, even in record year

Liz Wells June 11, 2021

The Dunmill family has had canola in the rotation for 20 years, and has 420ha in this year. Photo: Jack Dunmill

IN AUSTRALIA’s record canola area forecast at almost 3 million hectares, Queensland has once again failed to make any more than a tiny blip on the national radar.

While up to 20 Queensland growers have given canola a run in the past, drought in three of the past four years has driven it into the wilderness as growers try to bring back their normal crop rotations.

However, its agronomic benefits coupled with decile-nine world prices for the oilseed, and a solid domestic market for canola meal in Queensland feed rations, point to the possibility of it gaining traction in coming years, seasons permitting.

Grain Central inquiries say Queensland has just two commercial growers this year – the Dunmill family north-east of Goondiwindi, and the Wise family east of Dalby – who jointly have less than 500 hectares planted.

Seed companies, which have met unprecedented national demand for canola this year, also have canola area in this year, which largely accounts for the 2000ha ABARES has pencilled in for the state.

Border interest

Pioneer Seeds territory sales manager Ben Thrift covers Queensland’s central and southern Downs, and the Goondiwindi and Border Rivers regions.

He said southern Downs and western downs canola crops have recorded yields of 1-3 tonnes per hectare after good starts and kind seasons, but dry seasons and missed or late breaks have seen growers opt for other crops.

“It will work up here, but you’ve got to have the seasons and a good profile of moisture,” Mr Thrift said.

However, 2022 might be different story if canola prices stay where they are at upwards of $600 per tonne on farm, and autumn delivers an early break for the 2022 season and crops can be planted from late April into May.

“We have growers who are keen to place it in their rotation to see the benefits.

“They want to look at how they can grow canola, and the profitability of the crop.”

He said growers were also interested in the Clearfield herbicide technology canola can bring to help tackle difficult weeds and provide cleaner fallows post-harvest.

Mr Thrift said growers in the Goondiwindi region seemed particularly keen to try canola, and Pioneer was planning two field days for the region later in the current growing season.

One is pencilled in at the Dunmills’ farm, where canola has been grown every year for the past 20 years.

In late April, the Dunmills planted 420 hectares of canola comprising Pioneer’s new 44Y94CL as well as 43Y92CL and 44Y90CL, all Clearfield varieties.

“That’s around about a normal area for us,” Mr Dunmill said.

The Dunmills harvest for grain, and can reasonably expect an oil content of 40pc, with seed going to a Darling Downs stockfeed miller on a regular basis.

“If you average 1t/ha, you’re happy, and the benefit is you grow some of your better wheat in canola country the following year, and the country softens up a bit.”

“We try to sow around Anzac day because if you plant it too early, it will grow a lot of bush and be tall, and that doesn’t relate to grain.”

Value in rotation

The Dunmills have developed a six-year rotation of back-to-back wheat followed by, canola, Clearfield wheat, sorghum and fallow on their undulating country at Yagaburne.

“It’s a complete disease break.”

As opposed to chickpeas, canola leaves thick stubble which baffles run-off and minimises topsoil losses.

“We don’t grow chickpeas because there’s no cover left after it, and it’s slopey country here.”

Independent agronomist John Kerlin works with clients mainly on Queensland’s Western Downs, and said canola was worth considering because it tolerated sodic soils, could be grazed, and could produce hay with around 20-per-cent protein.

Canola first came to his attention as a disease break, particularly in country where successive years of wheat cropping meant the crown rot fungus could bite into wheat yields during dry springs.

“In the mid 2000s, we looked at field pea and canola to break crown rot and nematode cycles,” Mr Kerlin said.

While canola performed respectably for some Queensland growers, Mr Kerlin said marketing it was a problem when the closest volume consumer was Cargill’s crushing plant at Kooragang.

“You had to go to Newcastle to sell it.”

However, with production of cottonseed meal at Narrabri in northern NSW ceasing in 2018, canola meal has become a sought-after commodity north of the border.

Mr Kerlin said the use of zero till in many farming systems has increased soil bulk density, and canola can be part of an alternative management system to help counter that.

It can also grow successfully in sodic soils which do not suit chickpeas.

This covers large tracts of the Western Downs, where gypsum can be used to ameliorate the soil and improve yields.

However, the cost of applying it at depth at rates heavy enough to be effective can be prohibitive and Mr Kerlin said canola can be considered as part of a slower and gentler option.

“My thoughts are about using it as an opportunity crop so you don’t have long fallows.

“What you’re doing needs to be financially viable and environmental sustainable.”

Fodder option

East of Dalby, Bowenville mixed farmer Lance Wise is growing canola again this year, and has 40ha of 44Y94CL which he expects to cut for hay.

“We see it as an oilseed, but growing it for hay gives you a foot in the door as to how to grow it for grain,” Mr Wise said.

“There are a few learning curves to get across, and we just wanted to suss it out.”

Following good rain in March, they planted their canola in mid-April which has given it plenty of time to establish as a vegetative crop ahead of the cold weather.

“We’ll cut it in early September when the bottom leaves brown off, and then we’ll mow it when it’s 80pc plus finished flowering.”

This will enable them to finish with their canola prior to their winter-crop harvest starting in October.

“We’ll keep half the bales, and the other half will go to a dairy farmer.

“Cattle love it.”

“It’s so high in protein, and the cattle do really well on it.”

Mr Wise said if they were growing canola for grain, their biggest issue would be dodging frost in September, which walloped a crop they grew some years ago.

“We did 120ha and were looking at 3-4t/ha, and then we got frost in September and got back to half a tonne.”

Early starter

Seednet north-eastern Australia territory sales manager Jon Thelander said canola, like faba beans, sat comfortably in the early planting window, and was likely only to shine in years when southern Queensland had a big and early break to top up good subsoil moisture.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a game-changer in Queensland,” Mr Thelander said.

“Our winter is so much shorter than in the south; we go from winter to summer overnight, and that cruels the oil content.”

In southern Australia, canola can yield 4-5t/ha, and up to 6-7t/ha in places, and in kind seasons receives bonuses for oil content above 42pc.

However, ABARES pegged the national average yield at 1.7t/ha, as many crops are grown in lower-rainfall zones in all mainland states.

“It’s a drought-hardy tap-rooted plant, and can utilise good deep moisture.

“What I like about canola is that it’s very resistant to root-lesion nematodes.

“It is a wonderful crop for driving down nematode numbers.”

Mr Thelander said canola’s benefit was more as an addition to the rotation than as a cash crop.

“Like sorghum, it’s a crown-rot break.”

Major minor south of border

Growers in the far north of NSW are supplying stockfeed millers north of the border with the small quantities of canola they produce, and also have the option of supplying container packers in Moree and Narrabri and bulk handlers at selected sites.

AMPS Moree-based agronomist Tony Lockrey said canola’s price and suitability to early planting, as well as its agronomic benefits, saw it as a regular in some rotations, and an opportunity crop in others.

“We have got about 2300ha of canola on our books this year.

“I think our biggest year was 8000ha, so it’s certainly not our biggest year, but it’s our biggest canola planting in a while.”

“There’s certainly some interest in a commodity that held its value provide solidly.”

McGregor Gourlay Croppa Creek agronomist Iain MacLennan also said canola’s solid price was part of its attraction.

“In my patch north of Moree and to the east, it’s a welded-on part of the rotation for some growers,” Mr MacLennan said.

“Others might try it because it gives some other herbicide options.

“People who grow it year in and year out know how to grow it, and it’s into the slopes where there is slightly higher rainfall that it’s more popular.”

Mr MacLennan said area was variable.

“It has a lot to do with that early break.”


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