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Revised February 2022.
Canola is an annual winter or spring oil crop in the Brassicaceae family. It is related to mustard, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and turnip. Canola grows from three to five feet tall and has a deep taproot and a fibrous, near-surface root system. Canola varieties have been developed from three different species of Brassica, namely napus, rapa, and juncea, but most canola varieties grown in the U.S. are Brassica napus.
Canola is the same species as rapeseed, only differing genetically in its chemical composition and fatty acid profile. Though rapeseed oil is excellent for industrial uses, it has an unpleasant flavor and has a high content (at least 45%) of erucic acid. Moreover, there are also high levels of glucosinolates in the seed meal of rapeseed after oil extraction whereas canola has only tract amounts. Glucosinolates and erucic acid can be unhealthy for humans if consumed in large quantities. Even though rapeseed and canola are similar genetically and their management at the farm level is similar, the focus of this profile will be on canola.
Canadian plant breeders, using classical plant breeding techniques, selected cultivars from rapeseed germplasm that had on trace levels of glucosinolates in the seed meal and almost no erucic acid in the oil. The name ‘Canola’ (abbreviated for Canadian oil, low acid) was registered in 1979 in Canada and refers to the edible oil crop that was developed that is characterized by low erucic acid (less than 2 percent) and low levels of glucosinolates. Canola oil has a very mild flavor and other favorable characteristic and canola is now the dominant Brassica oilseed crop grown in Canada and the U.S. Visually, the seeds of canola and rapeseed appear identical.
Canola has a similar growing cycle to that of small grains and can therefore be grown in geographies where small grains are grown. It is an excellent crop to grow in rotation with small grains as it has a different rooting pattern and does not support diseases that are common to small grains. Canola fields are also an excellent food source for honey bees. Canola produces flowers over a relative long period of time and these flowers produce high amounts of nectar.
Like wheat, there are both winter and spring types of canola. Northern regions of the world with a harsh winter tend to produce spring types. Canada and North Dakota, for example, produce primarily spring types whereas the E.U. and China produce winter types. Winter types tend to have greater yield potential than spring types when grown in similar environments when they are not damaged by cold temperatures during the winter.
The largest producer of canola in the world is Canada. India, China, Australia, Russia and the European Union are also major producers, though the data on the production of canola are often grouped with data on the production of rapeseed in countries outside of North America. Canada produces 20 percent of the world’s canola and is by far the largest exporter, accounting for more than 70% of the export trade.
In 2021, canola was harvested from 2.1 million acres in the U. S. Yields averaged 1,119 lb/A. Total production in 2021, 2.3 billion lb, was down compared to recent years due to dry conditions in the main canola regions of the U.S.
Most canola production in the United States occurs in the Northern Plains with about 80% of the production in North Dakota. Other major producing states are Montana, Washington, Idaho and Oklahoma. Canola, however, is widely adapted to other parts of the U.S. and in 2021 was planted in 29 different states. Most canola grown in the U.S. is the spring type, but both winter and spring types are grown in the Pacific Northwest and winter types predominate in the Southern Plains.
Management of canola is similar to that of small grains. Canola grows well on a wide variety of well-drained soils, prefers a pH between 5.5 and 8.3 and is moderately tolerant of saline soils. Equipment needed include a tractor, drill or broadcast seeder, sprayer, windrower, combine harvester with pick up head and wagons for transportation, similar to the equipment needed for other small-seeded grain or oil-seed crops.
There are three types of canola varieties available to farmers, namely, open-pollinated, synthetic hybrids and hybrids. These types are developed through different breeding approaches and require different methods of seed production. Seed cost is higher for synthetic hybrids and hybrids, but their superior performance in good environments usually more than compensates for the added cost. Furthermore, varieties have been developed with different herbicide tolerant traits. Roundup Ready™ and Liberty™ tolerant varieties have been genetically modified (GMOs) while Clearfield™ varieties that are resistant to the herbicide Beyond™ were developed through traditional breeding techniques (non-GMO). When growing for the organic market, the cultivars used must be non-GMO and due to the high level of cross pollination of canola, organic fields must be well isolation from conventional canola cultivars, which can bring GMO traits into the field through pollen drift.
Fertilizer needs vary based on the yield potential of a production site, including soil type, native soil fertility level and rainfall potential. Nitrogen requirements range from 100 to 150 lb/A. Phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O) fertility needs vary with soil test levels. P2O5 recommended rates range from 0 to 80 lb/A. K2O recommended rates range from 0 to 140 lb/A. Sulfur is also important for profitable canola production and the recommended sulfur fertilizer rates range from 10 to 30 lb/A.
Seed shattering at harvest is a typical problem, so canola is commonly swathed when seed moisture is about 35%.
Currently the demand for canola in the U.S. far exceeds the supply with imports from Canada filling the gap. However, finding a convenient local buyer is critical for production to be profitable, particularly in regions of the U.S. where canola is not commonly grown. The U.S. Canola Association (see link below) or one of the regional grower associations may be helpful in identifying buyers in a given geography.
Canola is primarily grown for its edible oil, and contains 35 to 45 percent oil in the seed. Canola oil is the third most consumed oil in the world and is considered one of the healthiest oils as it is high in unsaturated fats and has the least saturated fat of common cooking oils. Its light texture, tolerance to heat and neutral flavor make it ideal for a wide range of culinary uses. Canola oil is also an important feedstock for biodiesel. Biodiesel from canola oil has excellent cold flow properties. Steps for processing canola oil and meal are available from the Canola Council of Canada.
Canola oilseed meal, the byproduct of oil extraction, contains 36% protein with an excellent amino acid profile and 3.5% fat when solvent extraction is used. When canola oil is cold pressed, as for organic markets, the remaining meal contains 12-18% fat. Both are excellent protein sources for livestock rations and cold pressed canola meal is also a good energy source. Canola oilseed meal is readily digested and is highly palatable. Research has shown that adding canola meal to the ration of dairy cows can increase milk production. It can also be used as a protein source of pigs, and poultry and can be used to replace fishmeal in the production of some fish species.
- Brassica Breeding and Research Group, University of Idaho.
- Rapeseed and Canola for Biodiesel Production
- Canola Council of Canada
- Crop Production Annual Summary, 2022, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
- Crop Value Annual Summary, 2021, NASS, USDA.
- Rapeseed and Products: World Supply and Distribution, 2022, Foreign Ag Service, USDA.
- Canola, 2021, National Statistics, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
- Canola Council of Canada - A trade association representing producers, input suppliers, processors and marketers of canola and its products.
- Oil Crops Outlook, 2021, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.
- Oil Crops Yearbook, 2021, ERS, USDA.
- Northern Canola Growers Association
- U.S. Canola Association, Contains links to production manuals, variety trial results, regional canola associations, a list of suppliers of seed, oil and meal and other resources for growers and other stakeholders.
- Canola extension publications, North Dakota State University
- Canola, 2018, Oregon State University Extension Service.
- Canola, 2005, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
- Crop Profile for Canola in Canada, 2005, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
- Great Plains Canola Production Handbook, 2018, Kansas State University.
- Field Crop Budgets Publication 60, 2022, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ontario, Canada.
- Canola Production Field Guide, 2011, North Dakota State University Extension.
- Winter Canola Production in Kansas, 2013, Kansas State University Research and Extension.
- Canola or Rapeseed Production in Pennsylvania, 2015, PennState Extension.
- Swathing and Harvesting Canola, 2019, North Dakota State University Extension.