Increasing use of biodiesel could fuel canola explosion
Canola may provide California growers with a new alternative to other grain crops because its oil seeds are a major source of biodiesel. The crop is similar to wheat in terms of planting and harvesting dates.
Field crop growers looking for a viable alternative to wheat, corn and barley may soon find their answer in canola.
Canola is among the best of all crops for making biodiesel fuel. And if biodiesel use increases as expected, there could be enormous demand and significant price increases for canola.
"There is a huge buzz in the bioenergy area. I think even in California there is a possibility we could produce biofuel crops," said Steve Kaffka, University of California Cooperative Extension agronomist.
With the possibility of this extraordinary opportunity in the not-too-distant future, Kaffka is coordinating a UC study on the potential for widespread canola growing in the state.
"We only have a modest experience with canola in California, but I think the prospects for an increase in the price are very realistic," Kaffka said. "The demand for these oil seeds may be sufficient to bring the price to the point that it will be of interest to us."
Canola variety trials have recently been planted in Chico, Davis, the West Side Field Station and the Imperial Valley. Both herbicide-tolerant and conventional varieties were included, which is the first step in the long process of learning to grow canola efficiently in California.
While there is little experience with canola in California, there is a lot of information available from the extensive experience with canola in Australia. The Canola Association of Australia has summarized that experience in a book "Canola in Australia: The First 30 Years," available free on the Internet at www.canolaaustralia.com.
According to Kaffka, most of Australia's canola is grown in an area with a climate similar to the stretch from Bakersfield to Redding.
"Canola is thought to be less tolerant of drought than wheat," he said. But canola is similar to wheat in terms of planting and harvesting dates.
There is between 12 inches and 30 inches of rainfall in the areas of Australia where rain-fed canola is grown. Canola uses around 18 inches of water a year under Australian conditions. The crop is also sensitive to water logging if the roots are soaked too long.
"It gives 55 to 70 percent of the yield of wheat, but what you're getting is seeds that are 45 percent oil," Kaffka said.
Preliminary estimates are that 40 pounds of nitrogen should be applied when growing canola after a high-nitrogen crop, or between 50 and 100 pounds of nitrogen under rain-fed conditions. These estimates come from the Australian experience and also from nitrogen studies that are part of the canola trials around California.
The Australians have a very wide range of canola varieties including shorter maturity types that are suitable for hotter areas. Kaffka has tried to get seeds from some of these Australian varieties, so far without success.
Also to be considered when growing canola are the possibilities of pests and diseases.
"Because it is in the cabbage family, canola will potentially be host to a broader range of pests and diseases than safflower," Kaffka said.
Flea beetles are the most likely pests to cause crop damage, but aphids, cutworms, leafminers, lepidoptera and other potential pests are all possible threats. And phoma, sclerotinia, alternaria, fusarium, verticillium and root rot are among the crop diseases that could become issues with canola.
The production costs for canola are typically in the same range as safflower—between $225 and $300 per acre—but Kaffka said the cost could decrease given certain efficiencies.
"The Australians typically get 1,500 to 2,000 pounds an acre in areas with rainfall similar to the Sacramento Valley, but I don't know if this is where we are stuck if we come up with efficiencies in fertilization, irrigation and variety choice," Kaffka said. "We can get very efficient crop yields if we put our minds to it."
He suggested that precision agriculture could go a long way toward increasing efficiency by improving the targeting of inputs. Another efficiency boost could come from using crops like safflower as rotation crops to recover nitrates from previous crops.
Increased efficiency has already led U.S. farmers in their ability to produce grain surpluses that could be used for biofuels.
Plus there are powerful long-range environmental and global incentives to expand the production of biodiesel.
Kaffka cited studies concluding that 3.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are produced in the production of a metric ton of petroleum diesel, but only 1.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide result from the production of a metric ton of biodiesel.
The most common method for making biodiesel is treating vegetable oil with alcohol, which has some problems with consistency of the fuel quality and the stability of the fuel in very cold weather. But both safflower and canola are at the top of the list in terms of crops that help to overcome these quality issues.
"Both safflower and canola are among the best oils for making biodiesel in terms of the quality of the fuel," Kaffka said.
(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Magalia. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.