While canola is typically grown as an oilseed crop, there are emerging uses as an alternative forage crop that may prove useful for dairy producers in some situations. While canola is typically grown as an oilseed crop, there are emerging uses as an alternative forage crop that may prove useful for dairy producers in some situations.Since it is typically planted in the fall for spring harvest, it can fill forage gaps and provide ground cover over the winter. Canola uses less water than corn silage, and its high protein can reduce the need for protein supplements in a ration.
Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agronomist, says in her experience in the Texas High Plains, it can be a double-crop alternative to other winter forages like wheat, triticale and rye with plenty of growing season left for a corn silage crop after harvest.
Overall, it is a nutrient-dense forage that may not yield quite as much as other crop options.
“It’s a very good-quality forage with decent tonnage,” she says, “but in many cases not as much tonnage as other forage.”
Juan Pineiro, DVM, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension dairy specialist, started working with the crop four years ago when a dairy farmer was starting to use canola as a replacement for alfalfa in rations.
Texas A&M has been part of national canola variety trials for eight years, starting with a focus on the more common use of the crop as an oilseed producer. Bell says as interest grew in their livestock-rich region for more forage options, particularly that could be harvested early in the season before summer crops are ready, they started studying the forage value of the crop.
Pineiro says their 2020 university trial under irrigation found crude protein (CP) at 16% when canola was harvested at full bloom with yield (on a dry matter basis) at 1.6 tons per acre.
As with other forage crops, forage quality decreases as yield increases when harvested later, so producers can plan harvest around their specific quality needs. Protein decreased to 10% when harvested at early ripening (early pod set) with a yield at 4.6 dry tons per acre. The canola was planted in late September and harvested at full bloom on April 14 and at early ripening on May 21.
A Feb. 1 planting date was also part of the study, and when the forage was harvested at early ripening on July 20, it yielded 3 dry tons per acre at 13% protein.
Pineiro says he is getting reports from dairy farmers seeing consistent protein from 20% to 24% when harvesting canola at full bloom, comparable to the alfalfa they are harvesting, so there is more to study about what management and environmental considerations impact forage nutritive quality.
Bell says the forage is typically harvested as silage from her experience, although it can also be grazed or hayed.
She says specialized planting and harvest equipment is not necessary for producers to grow canola. There are a variety of options for seeding, from drilling to planting to air seeding.
Because the crop is high in moisture at harvest – the trial had samples between 76% and 87% with moisture lowering as it matured – it needs to lay in a swath to wilt before it can be ensiled.
Bell says her region’s hot, dry climate requires it to dry down in the windrow for 24 to 36 hours on average before it reaches the ideal 65% moisture, although it will depend on the rainfall and weather patterns. Then it can be harvested very similarly to a wheat silage crop.
As canola has the potential for high nitrates, she recommends soil sampling and planning for the correct fertility for the crop with a local agronomist who knows the area.
“Producers need to be thinking about their nutrient management and also testing the forage before harvest to determine nitrate levels,” she says.
She cautions against assuming that nitrates will dissipate fully in the silage pit.
“Never assume it all will be lost,” she says. “It’s best to test and ensure they’re working with a safe forage before it is chopped and ensiled.”
Because the crop is considered a “hot” forage with high protein and digestibility, Bell says it is typically mixed with another forage.
A distinct benefit of canola is the potential reduction in additional protein supplements, as Pineiro explains.
“If you start your ration formulation with a forage that has high protein, that means you don’t have to spend as much on protein concentrates, which is the most expensive nutrient in a diet,” he says.
While it is unlikely to be harvested this late as a forage, Pineiro says if the canola is harvested after it starts to accumulate a larger amount of oil in the seeds, the silage will need to be carefully balanced in the ration since “too much fat will decrease fiber digestibility.”
Canola is not considered a highly drought-tolerant crop, but it does not have water demands as high as crops like corn silage, and Bell says it fits well in a double-crop rotation with corn silage for that reason.
Herbicide options are limited with canola, and Bell says that may be an important factor for some operations and less important for others. There are a few canola types resistant to Roundup Ready and Clearfield technologies.
Texas A&M worked with the Griffin variety, a dual-purpose oilseed and forage type of canola developed through Kansas State University’s breeding program and suited to the local climate.
There is a wide assortment of canola varieties and hybrids to pick from, and Bell encourages farmers to pick a type suited to their area and management, likely including winter hardiness as a consideration.
For producers considering whether or not to give canola a try, Bell encourages considering the big picture of forage needs for the operation and where canola might fill gaps and help meet goals. Working with a nutritionist on how different crops will fit together in a ration and other discussions will help determine if canola might be a good fit.
While it may not be the first thing to think about in the dollars-and-cents part of the equation, there are a variety of economic and environmental benefits to crop diversity, and since canola is a brassica, it can provide some of those benefits in rotations that focus on grass crops.