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Canola potential third cash crop for Iowa?

By Staff | Aug 24, 2011

AMES – Bare soil is a common sight in Iowa in the wintertime.

Corn and soybean, Iowa’s dominant cropping systems, are summer annuals that leave soil exposed to erosion, nutrient loss and weed invasion during the rest of the year.

A project funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Ecology Initiative hopes to change that with canola, a winter annual and a potential third cash crop for Iowa agriculture.

Mary Wiedenhoeft, professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, initiated the project in 2009 with Ph.D. student Stefan Gailans.

The project is featured in a video online at: www.leopold.iastate.edu/research/eco_files/ground/canola.html, titled “On the Ground with the Leopold Center.”

The source of healthful vegetable oil, canola offers farmers a marketable annual crop that helps protect ecosystem resources.

Increasing crop diversity – specifically, with annuals that fill in the gaps when corn and soybean aren’t growing, or with perennial species – can help interrupt weed cycles, reduce pests and mitigate erosion from wind and water.

To study canola’s economic viability and environmental benefits, the research team established three different cropping rotations.

These include conventional corn/soybean, plus two alternatives with spring and winter varieties of canola.

In the alternative systems, the canola is double-cropped with either spring or winter wheat and interseeded with red clover.

Canola actively takes up sunlight and nutrients during times of year when corn and soybean aren’t growing.

That allows farmers to take advantage of spring and fall growing seasons, generating revenue while keeping more cover on the ground.

The additional nitrogen and organic matter held in the soil improves next year’s corn crop, and the added diversity makes the farm more resilient to changing market forces.

“I grew up on a farm in Iowa,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I really want agriculture to be able to continue in Iowa.

“I want it to be productive, but I also want it to be sustainable in relationship to the environment.”

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