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Canola in Oklahoma


By James Pratt


Above: Custom harvester Justin Spielman from Newkirk combines a fi eld of canola near El Reno. Unlike wheat, canola must fi rst be cut and swathed into windrows, allowed to dry, and then combined. Left: A fi eld of yellow canola in central Oklahoma. Photos by James Pratt


S


pringtime in Oklahoma has tradition- ally been marked by the color green. From huge expanses of winter wheat fi elds in central and western Oklahoma, to the budding leaves of the abundant trees in eastern Oklahoma, green has dominated the spring landscape.


Yet in recent years, large fi elds of yellow fl owers are catching the eyes of motorists who travel the state, especially in central and western Oklahoma. These brush strokes of lively summer color are the blooming of the canola plant, fast becoming a ma- jor cash crop for many progressive Oklahoma farmers.


History of Canola


According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Canola was developed in Canada in the 1970s by selective breeding of rapeseed, a relative of mustard seed. Rapeseed has been used for centuries as a fuel and lubricant. With the advent of steam power, rapeseed oil became popular as a lubricant in steam engines. The oil clung to wet metal surfaces in steam-based engines better than petroleum-based oil. During World War II, North America was blocked from traditional supplies of rapeseed oil in Europe and Asia. Canada quickly expanded rape- seed production to supply the needs of the Allies during World War II.


18 WWW.OK-LIVING.COOP


A sharp drop in demand occurred after the war and farmers began looking for other uses for rape- seed oil. It was developed as a biodiesel fuel and is one of the highest quality oils used for biodiesel because of the low cloud point of the oil in cold weather. The byproducts—the shell and meal left over after oil production—were used in animal food production, but were not well accepted by animals because of the high levels of erucic acid. Canadian farmers attempted to sell the oil to the human food consumption market but because of the distinctive taste, greenish color and high levels of erucic acid, the oil was no better accepted by humans than by livestock. Plant scientists worked hard to lower the erucic acid content using traditional plan breeding methods, with moderate results. In 1978 Canadian producers trademarked the name Canola, which is derived from the words “Canadian oil, low acid.” The popularity of canola changed in the early


1990s with the advent of genetic engineering. Scientists developed new varieties of canola with signifi cantly lower erucic acid levels and a resistance to herbicides such as Roundup. In addition, they were able to develop strains of canola that could survive cold winter temperatures in the southern plains states such as Oklahoma. This meant canola could become a winter rotational crop in these southern states rather than just a summer/fall crop as it was in Canada and the northern plains states.


Growing Canola in Oklahoma


In 2002, Dr. Tom Peeper at Oklahoma State University (OSU) began investigating the use of canola as a winter rotational crop in Oklahoma. Known as the “Father of Canola in the Southern Plains,” Dr. Peeper worked tirelessly with seed com- panies and farmers to introduce canola as “the per- fect rotational crop for hard red winter wheat.” Dr. Peeper and his staff at OSU began educa- tional programs around the state to show farmers how canola could help clean their fi elds of weeds, improve wheat crop yield after a year of canola pro- duction, and become a cash crop in its own right. “Canola can be rotated with winter wheat every two to three years. Farmers can use their existing wheat equipment to plant and fertilize canola,” Chad Godsey, associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at OSU, explains. “It requires a bit more work than winter wheat but this year canola is bringing a better price than wheat so that makes up for the extra work.”


Benefi ts as a Rotational Crop


A major challenge encountered by wheat farmers is the slow deterioration of their fi elds due to plant- ing the same crop year after year. Wheat is closely related to rye grass, which often grows wild in wheat fi elds. Any herbicide used to kill rye grass also kills the wheat plant. In addition, pests that attack wheat


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