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MSU Expert Says Early September Is Best Time To Plant Winter Canola In Montana


Montana farmers who want to experiment with growing winter canola should plant it in early September, says Perry Miller, professor of sustainable cropping systems at Montana State University.

That way, the canola will emerge by Sept. 15 and the crop will be on a timeline most suited for success, Miller said. If plants produce five leaves before winter, they have a good chance of survival. Canola that flowers from May 15 to June 15 will have the best yields because the seeds grow during the wettest time in Montana’s growing season.

“That’s the secret,” Miller said.

Miller said he isn’t encouraging Montana farmers to grow winter canola. But Montana farmers have been asking about his research, and planting time is almost here for those who want to try. 

Miller has been researching winter canola in Montana for 10 years. He is also involved in a national study called the National Winter Canola Variety Evaluation trial that involves researchers as far away as Texas and Georgia. MSU’s Post Farm west of Bozeman is the northernmost site in the study.

That national study and his own research have shown that growing winter canola in Montana isn’t as big a risk as it once was because the genetics have improved and scientists have good knowledge about the crop’s management, Miller said. He has found, too, that the yield from winter canola can be twice as much as that of spring canola. Winter canola grown on the Post Farm yielded at least 60 bushels an acre during the last harvest. Spring canola has yielded about half that.

“It’s a huge deal,” Miller said.

But winter canola is a “brittle system,” Miller said. If one thing goes wrong, the crop can fail. If everything goes right, farmers hit a home run.

Snow at the right time can protect the seeds, but at the wrong time, it can rot them, Miller explained. Crops that were planted at the right time at the right depth can over winter fine and still be destroyed by a cool, wet spring. In fact, spring conditions are one of the biggest challenges facing winter canola growers in Montana.

Besides timely planting, farmers who want to grow winter canola need to know how deep to plant the seeds and when to water them, Miller said. Broadcasting is relatively easy and cheap, but it’s best to plant the seeds a quarter- to half-inch deep in a defined furrow. He recommends that farmers plant 1.5 to two times the number of live seeds they would use for spring canola.

Seeding canola seed in tall wheat stubble is the worst for canola because it’s hard to get good seed-to-soil contact, and that stubble microclimate is too cool in the fall and spring during critical growth periods, Miller said. He advises farmers to do what they can to find a field that provides a warmer late fall and early spring microclimate.

Montanans are most likely to succeed at growing winter canola if they live in milder climates in the intermountain valleys, Miller said. It’s a good sign if their traditional winter wheat crop has survived 10 out of 10 years. Nevertheless, he suggests keeping the winter canola acreage small.

Dale Flikkema of Belgrade currently grows about 50 acres of winter canola and 250 acres of spring canola. With harvest a couple of weeks away, he said he was originally interested in winter canola for crop rotation purposes. In the process, he discovered that his yield from winter canola was about a third higher than spring canola. He sells his canola to Lethbridge, Canada for use as a food oil product.

Flikkema was also one of six Montana farmers who grew winter canola a few years ago as part of an on-farm trial instigated by Miller. Four of the farmers, including Flikkema, farmed in Gallatin County. Two farmed in Broadwater County. Out of the six, Flikkema was the only one whose crop was considered a success with the yield monitor running from zero to 100 bushels an acre due to patchy survival.

“Paying attention to early seeding was huge,” he said.

Flikkema planted a week earlier than most of the other farmers in the study and was able to irrigate. He also farmed on the edge of the Gallatin Valley snowbelt, so he benefited from snow that fell and left at opportune times.

Miller said Montanans who want to try growing winter canola can buy canola seed from CROPLAN Genetics. He added that canola emerges five or six days after planting in the fall. One pulse of irrigation in the fall is generally enough.

For more information about growing winter canola and the latest research, contact Miller at (406) 994-5431 or


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