November 04, 2004

Universities join forces for canola breeding effort

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Look for a national breeding program of winter canola to be up and running in the very near future.

"The idea is to develop varieties suitable across the country, with particular interest in those that are suitable for Midwest corn and soybean regions," said Michael E. Schmidt, longtime plant breeder at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

"We think canola would be complementary to existing crops and provide a more sustainable production system for our grain producers."

Key players will consist of SIUC, Kansas State University, Michigan State University, the University of Idaho and Virginia State University. As the program expands, this group will collaborate with researchers from Montana State University, North Dakota State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University and possibly the University of Arkansas.

"We got approval from the National Canola Association about a year ago at a minimum level of funding," Schmidt said.

"Once we get this thing kicked off, we're hoping to bring in additional researchers as the program develops."

The program will get a jump on the ball with the use of varieties provided by Kansas and Idaho, with breeding efforts expanding to include SIUC, Michigan and Virginia.

"Kansas has been in this for at least 10 years and Idaho longer than that," Schmidt said. "They have a lot of good canola genetics available for testing."

Canola, a type of rapeseed in the mustard family, can be pressed into an edible oil that has less saturated fat than other oils. Manufacturers can use it in making lubricants, fuel, soaps, paints, plastics, cosmetics, inks and such, and its byproducts can be milled into high-protein livestock feed.

"It can do anything vegetable oil does, "Schmidt said. "There's a lot of value in these oils, but in this country, consumption far exceeds production."

While U.S. farmers have doubled the amount of canola they grew in the past seven years to 719,000 tons, according to the quarterly Web journal, Ag Innovation News, consumption still outpaces production almost three to one, and demand continues to rise. As a result, most of the canola oil sold in this country comes from Canada, which exports more than 70 percent of its oil to American markets.

The United States has roughly two million acres in canola production, with 650,000 acres of that in just two states. Schmidt thinks there's room for expansion.

"Currently, most canola is grown in North Dakota and Minnesota, but they are spring varieties," he said. "They don't have the potential to provide the return on acreage the winter types have. This is particularly true for the Midwest corn and soybean belt.

"As winter types are developed to become more hardy, they will far out-yield the spring types and can serve as an alternative to winter wheat. Indeed, canola may prove superior to wheat for double-crop soybean production."

This is where the breeding program comes in. By joining forces, the universities should get more bang for their research buck in the search for improved varieties and avoid duplication of research efforts.

"We don't need each and every state independently developing and testing canola varieties," Schmidt said. "We can identify those lines that are specifically adapted to particular regions through this multi-state effort and do so much more efficiently."

Winter kill plagued canola in the past, in part, Schmidt thinks, because early on, the only varieties available came from Europe and had not undergone enough testing before they were released in the Midwest.

"Many of those just couldn't withstand our winters," he said. "When canola was first introduced in the Midwest, there were only two varieties offered to the producers. These were later found to be ill suited. The winters of '88 to '91 were devastating. Several acres were planted, but few were harvested. This kind of devastation across the board sours the producer."

Many farmers got out of canola after that, and they've been slow to give it a second chance.

"We have seen an improvement in some of the varieties, particularly in those developed in the U.S., but the interest today -- even with those better varieties -- is not what it was," Schmidt said.

That's why the creation of the breeding program is just a first step, Schmidt believes.

"The next step is to get some key producers across the region to take an interest in this crop -- that's an effort in itself. Canola needs a few champions to get established."