By Anitha Chirumamilla, Ph.D., and Hans Kandel, Ph.D.
Producers traditionally have swathed rather than straight-combined canola. In recent years, the availability of new pod shatter-resistant varieties has made straight cutting the new trend for canola harvesting. However, both swathing and straight combining have their places based on harvest conditions. Timely straight cutting can save time and money and result in improved canola yields and seed quality (lower harvest moisture, less green seed and higher test weight). Heavier canola stands are better suited for straight combining than thinner stands because of the decreased likelihood of shattering from wind. In the absence of pod shatter tolerance, straight combining has resulted in yield losses of 8 to 54 percent, as reported by the Canola Production Center in Canada.
Many farmers tend to use desiccants to attain uniform maturity for straight cutting canola. Several pre-harvest herbicides are labeled for use as a desiccant in canola. Check your local labels if products can be used in your situation. Desiccants should be applied when more than 60 to 75 percent of the seeds have started to turn color (see the herbicide label). Research has shown that when the desiccant is timed properly, crop quality parameters – including yield, test weight, oil content, seed loss, green count and grade – generally were similar for desiccated canola compared to swathing.
Fields that are prone to early frost risk and excessive lodging with uneven maturity and heavy infestations of green weeds and diseases (clubroot, blackleg and white mold that reduce the pod integrity), pose severe challenges to straight combining canola. Therefore, swathing may be the better choice for these situations.
Swathing canola at the optimum stage of ripening reduces green seed problems and seed shatter losses, and ensures the quality required for top grades and prices. Swathing can begin in canola at more than 60 percent color change. When canola plants consist only of stems, branches and pods, the crop probably is very near the optimum time for swathing. Seeds in all pods on a plant complete filling (physiological maturity) at about 40 percent moisture and then slowly turn from green to light yellow or reddish brown, brown or black, depending on the variety. In hot (>90° F), dry weather, canola seed can go from 10 to 50 percent seed color change in just three to five days or less. Once filled, seeds rapidly lose moisture at about 2 to 3 percentage points or more each day depending on the weather.
Inspect fields every two to three days when some color change occurs in the first-formed pods on the bottom of the main stem. To determine when a field of canola is ready to swath, examine plants from different parts of the field. When examining the plants, consider varying soil types, low-lying areas, available soil moisture and exposed early ripening areas. Seeds with only small patches of color should be counted as color changed. The color of the seed is more important than the overall color of the field in determining the stage of maturity. When seeds in the bottom pods slightly turn color, seeds in the top, last-formed pods are filled or nearly filled. Avoid swathing during hot (>86° F), dry and windy weather as pods and seeds dry out much faster in the swath before chlorophyll clears up in the seed. Swathing during the cool evening hours or at night or early morning will allow the seed to dry down at a slower rate, lowering the chances of green seed in the end product. Swathed canola is ready to harvest five to 14 days after cutting the crop. If there is still green seed in the pods, allow a few extra days in the swath for more color change. Green seed color is fixed once the crop is combined and put into storage.
Anitha Chirumamilla, Ph.D., is extension cropping systems specialist and Hans Kandel, Ph.D., is extension agronomist for broadleaf crops at North Dakota State University in Langdon, N.D.