Researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture are investigating canola as a possible third crop for Iowa farmers to accent corn and soybeans. Stefan Gailans, a graduate student in agronomy at Iowa State University, says winter canola is only being grown on our continent in parts of Montana, North Dakota and Canada and has true potential in Iowa.

“The seed is about 40% oil, compared to soybean which is about 18% oil,” Gailans says. “Canola is primarily pressed for a cooking oil. It’s one of the more healthy oils one can cook with, right up there with grape seed and olive oil. It’s also a biodiesel source.” Farmers who plant only corn and soybeans often have bare soil during the winter, leaving it exposed to erosion, nutrient loss and weed invasion.

Winter canola is planted around Labor Day and is harvested the following July. Gailans says it could be both an excellent cover crop and a cash crop. Farmers who’ve already invested in traditional planting and harvesting equipment for other crops may not need to sink a significant amount of money into making the switch to canola.

“Canola is a very small seed, smaller or about the same size as alfalfa or red clover,” Gailans says. “If a farmer had a grain drill that he or she used to seed a pasture of red clover or alfalfa, that would work. As far as harvesting, we use a grain head much like a soybean or wheat combine head.”

He says they’re still crunching the numbers to determine how profitable canola would be compared to corn or soybeans. In addition to being used for cooking oil or fuel, canola offers farmers a marketable annual crop to fill in the gaps when corn and soybean aren’t growing.

Very few Iowa growers are experimenting with canola and Gailans says it could have a promising future in the state.

“Exactly, it’s all about seeing whether or not the crop would perform well here, given Iowa’s climate is a little different than the Dakotas, a little different than the Canadian prairies and a little different than Europe,” Gailans says. “Really, we want to see just how well the crop may perform and what it presents for a potential farmer here in Iowa.” He says he’s only aware of one place in Iowa that’s using canola seeds now, a cooking oil processor in the northwest Iowa town of Cherokee.

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