The Okanola Project, 2011 Friends of IPM Award Winner
Bright Idea

Okanola Project

When extension specialists at Oklahoma State University first recommended crop rotation to combat weeds in wheat, growers were skeptical. Wheat had dominated Oklahoma cropping systems and culture for decades, and the arid conditions in several parts of the state made growing another crop a formidable prospect. As weeds increased and yields did not, many growers began taking the specialists’ advice. Seven years later, about 100,000 of Oklahoma’s wheat growers are reducing their weed problems and increasing their wheat yield, all by rotating their wheat with canola.

According to OSU weed scientist Thomas Peeper, wheat growers have faced weed management issues since 1976. Weeds and diseases are two of the biggest problems in a monocrop system, so specialists usually recommend rotating the crop with a different crop species to clean the soil.

But despite flatlined yields and weeds that consistently infiltrated the harvest, growers were concerned about growing another crop. Most of them had grown wheat for years, often handed down from several generations. Learning to grow another crop was intimidating.

“The farmers were locked into wheat,” he says. “The University supported wheat. Nobody had even heard about crop rotation.”

After a concerted search, Peeper and fellow extension specialist Mark Boyles found an alternative crop that they felt would be easy for wheat growers to grow—canola. Growers could use the same equipment. Demand for canola oil was increasing, so growers would probably see a higher return on yields. And it was a broadleafed crop, so growers could use herbicides on the grassy weeds that had plagued the wheat.

“A grower can grow canola at the same time he’d plant the wheat and clean up his field, reduce his dockage, and bring better quality wheat to the elevator,” says Boyles.

To pilot the new crop, Boyles and Peeper picked ten farmers to plant ten acres of canola. Because canola grows in conditions similar to those for wheat, farmers did not need retraining. For most growers, the crop grew beautifully—until farmers brought their cows to the nearby wheat fields to graze on the dead wheat.

“As canola develops, its sugars concentrate, and when the cows were done with the wheat, they began grazing on the canola and grazed it right to the ground,” Peeper says.

Several growers, however, grew the crop successfully and discovered that they had fewer weeds in the wheat the following year. Peeper and Boyles decided to increase the acreage the next year and add several more farmers to a second pilot project. When the specialists continued to encounter resistance, they knew the time had come to change the farming culture—farmers, specialists, agents, consultants, marketers, manufacturers and buyers. They began a new statewide project called the “Okanola Project.”

Funded by several sources, including the state IPM program, canola growers associations, USDA Risk Management Agency and several private companies, the Okanola Project has continued to increase the support for growing canola in Oklahoma. A plant that crushed cottonseed retrofitted its equipment to crush canola seed for oil. Growers discovered that they can sell canola for twice of the price of wheat. And the wheat that is grown in the fields following canola reaps a higher price because it is free of grassy weeds.

“The growers are very satisfied,” says Boyles. “There are some growers that tried it the first year and didn’t do well, but they’re coming back and they see the benefit. We’ve had some farmers that have had ryegrass problems, and then they’ll put canola in to clean up the field. Then they go back to growing wheat.”

Heath Sanders, another OSU extension specialist, works directly with growers on canola management. As the number of farmers growing canola continues to increase, IPM Coordinator Tom Royer is seeking to hire someone to cover the southwest part of the state.

Canola acreage has grown from those first 60 acres in 2002 to 100,000 this year. Peeper credits the success to the financial and staff support they have received from all of the individuals and groups that have helped to build the program.

“It’s a good example of what you can do if you get everybody together,” he says.