How Early is Too Early to Plant Winter Canola with Isaac Madsen

Canola Field

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Contact Isaac Madsen via email at or via phone at (360) 448-9081.

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Isaac Madsen. Isaac is a soil scientist and native of the Northwest. He currently serves as the extension agronomist for the Washington Oilseeds Cropping Systems Project at WSU. He has been involved in research on soil health, plant root, soil interactions, soil fertility, and alternative crops. His current research focuses on stand establishment, soil fertility, and winter survival in canola. Additionally, Isaac is interested in alternative oilseed production methods such as intercropping and dual-purpose canola. He hopes to see sustainable oilseed production continue to expand and bring crop diversity to the inland pacific northwest. Hello Isaac.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Hello Drew.

Drew Lyon: So what is the general outlook for oilseed production in Washington this coming year?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: So I would say based on our 2020 numbers it’s quite exciting and good. 2020 was I think the record year. well I know it was the record year for canola and production in Washington State as far as acreage goes. So depending on the estimate we had somewhere between 73,000 and 80,000 acres. So that’s — not too long ago we were at 10,000 acres.

Drew Lyon: Oh, very nice.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: That’s quite an increase. That’s real exciting. Then last year was great on yields too. I have some theories as to why that is. I think mostly related to just being cold out during flowering and hitting the right weather. But some of our research plots are strip trials, so these are large, bigger than a small plot, a large strip trial. Those yielded on average across all varieties 2700 pounds and then the top ones were 2900 pounds.

Drew Lyon: Was that winter or spring?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: That was spring. Yeah, that was spring. That was spring.

Drew Lyon: Really?! Wow.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. I guess if that’s winter, it’s not terribly impressive. I talked to a grower around the Moscow/Pullman area that said they got around 4,000 pounds on a field. So that’s anecdotal, and that was spring canola also. So those are exciting numbers.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. The weather was good last year but maybe growers are getting more familiar with the crop, do you think?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. I think there’s both — I think we’ve come a long way in understanding how this crop works and what it needs. Then there is I think people tried planting early, which in some cases cost us because there was some later freezes, but that early planting lead to earlier flowering and it was cool during flowering. So I think the canola flowered longer than I’ve ever seen it flower. So I was walking in spring canola that was up to my shoulders, and I’m 6’1″ so for reference. That was probably the tallest non-irrigated spring canola I’ve ever walked in my life. That was quite exciting to see.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. So in the introduction, I said you’re interested in stand establishment and winter survival in canola. Can you talk a little bit about what some of the major challenges are for stand establishment and winter survival?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. So this is going to I guess this focuses on winter canola than where we were talking about spring canola before. It’s something I like to call sort of the dichotomy of planting winter canola in the pacific northwest. It has to do with our rainfall and our winters. And so if we’re planting our spring canola — our fall-seeded canola — if we plant it too early, we get a really big plant which will have trouble surviving the winter. And if we plant it too late, there won’t be moisture near the surface. So this is something that needs to be learned an adapted for people who are used to growing wheat because wheat you can stick it down in there a ways and it’ll come up through our really light soils. So I’ve heard stories of people going six inches deep with their wheat. You’re not going to get canola to push that far out of the soil. And so if we’re seeding into fallow, and you think about your fallow period, and you’re going along especially if you’re in a reduced till and you’re not doing rod weeding, your moisture line is declining over the summer. And so you get into July and August and you start getting into those hot months and start pushing towards September and your moisture might have really gone down into the soil. And so that’s sort of the challenge of why planting early is good is to get the moisture. Then if you plant too early though, then that’s where you get into this problem where you have trouble with winter survival because those plants can be too big. And so what we’re really looking at is okay, what are some alternatives to planting timing that we can use to either improve our stand establishment or improve our winter survival essentially going into the winter.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So how early is too early? How late is too late?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: So I’ve tried everything from May to September in planting dates and it’s a — it’s sort of a complicated function you have to think about because you have to think about your moisture in your profile. So and the thing I’ve found when we’ve tried those really early May planting dates is we actually droughted out. So you are using water in that fall-growth and that was very much on the extreme side. We’ve had some success with July plantings if you’re controlling the vegetative growth by some means. And then I would say, really too late is going to really depend on what winter we have and what moisture you have. So the real way to tell if you’re too late is going out and digging and seeing where your moisture line is. If it’s getting down there three or four inches, then you may need to start thinking about something else. In those instances where the moisture is declining a ways, of course, it depends somewhat on your management tools. I have seen growers out in that Lind/Ritzville area who control with a rod weeder or something to set the moisture line. I’ve seen plantings out there go fine in August and September even. But generally, that’s sort of the issue that you’re running into.

Drew Lyon: So, is winter survival, have more to do with the fact that you’ve depleted too much soil water during the summer or is it the plant’s just too big and it’s not winter-hearty? There’s a number of factors that come into play there.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: I think we don’t know actually. So this is what I’m focusing my research on. When I started working canola the story I kind of heard out of Oklahoma and Kansas was, your plant is too big and so it’s getting frozen. And by too big they really mean too tall. So how high is your growing point, right, because if that growing point is too tall it’s going to be more susceptible to the cold. So that’s really what we’re talking about when we say that the plant is too big. We’re actually measuring that this year because I looked at some data out of Kansas where they’ve done — and Oklahoma — where they’ve done more work on this, and I’m not convinced we know everything about the relationship between the height of the growing point and winter survival. And then obviously it depends on the winter a lot. So if we have a good snow cover and temperatures that aren’t too drastic — you know, I’ve see any size of plant go through winter. I’ve seen plants that were four leaves which would be considered way too small usually, and I’ve seen plants that were pretty much, you know, two or three feet across the canopy. And so [laughs] it really depends on what kind of winter we get. But what we’re trying to figure out is looking at our average winters, what kind of survival can we expect. And so that’s where we’re looking next.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So what kind of methods are you assessing to help you improve stand establishment and winter survival in the state?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yes, so stand establishment literally what we’re looking at is a few, sort of, more radical techniques, since really stand establishment — I’ll back up a step because it’s what we’re looking at now, and all — then there is all of the things we know can hurt canola when it’s young. I always think you can write a great novel about a canola plant growing up and all the challenges it has to survive as the seed like [laughs] — so you can — if you mess up on your fertility, and you have a band of fertilization to close the seed, that canola’s far more susceptible to that than wheat. You know, you can have some insect problems like flea beetles and actually we found wireworms now. That will eat canola when it’s young. And then you can have birds. So we’ve had some horned lark problems. So assuming you survive sort of all of those biotic and fertility stresses in that really young age, really what we’re looking then is the water problem, and how do we see canola when maybe water is suboptimal. And so we’re looking at two practices there. One was internal moisture, and we run simulations of this in the lab. And I’m not a terribly big fan of it. We haven’t really seen a large enough benefit from that. And so we were looking at germination and root growth. I think we were going up to — I think we were going up to 200 gallons per acre; I can’t remember the exact rate on a 12-inch row spacing. We weren’t seeing massive emergence benefits from that. So I would say if that does benefit anywhere it’s just really marginally. The next thing we tried was something that I was very skeptical at first, but I’m a little bit more excited about now. So a wetting agent that you put in the soil that’s supposed to help sort of — I don’t understand everything about how it works, but it’s supposed to help with germination. And so we got some of that and we ran it just because I was like okay. Well we’ll run an experiment in the lab. Those aren’t too expensive. And the initial results are — there was maybe — you could go maybe one or two maybe three percent drier with your gravimetric moisture and get the seeds to germinate and that. So we’ll see. We haven’t run it in the field. Aaron Esser
is attempting to run it in the fire. I think those plots had a little trouble this winter. And then I’m running more iterations of it in the lab. But that’ll be something to look for. So that would l be sort of if you have a marginal seeding condition, we’re like okay. I think I can get a stand up, but it might be a little spotty. That would sort of be a solution to use that. So the idea would be we would get better uniformity across the field.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So some interesting things as far as research goes and sounds like a very promising continuation of growth of canola in the state from 10,000 to let’s say almost 80,000 acres. That’s nice growth. Where can people go to learn more about your work on canola and maybe other oilseeds?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: There is one website where we keep most of the information and that’s the — it goes And so you can go there and hopefully you can put that and a link on the show, and then also actually the website that you are I guess running. I don’t know what to call it Drew — the small, so have some timely topics in this podcast on there. And the one thing I would say, if you go to oilseeds website we post every year our abstracts that we submit on the most recent research. So if you’re looking to learn about the things I’m talking about on the podcast, or even some other crazy ideas that we’re working on, or looking for maybe some variety information, you can go to the annual report or the field data abstracts on that oilseeds website. And there’s some good information there and it’s always the most recent. So that’s pre-publication, pre-extension bulletin. That’s the raw data as it comes out. So it hasn’t been as reviewed as the other sources, but I think it’s really good for just getting a general idea of what we’re working on.

Drew Lyon: Okay. These large strip variety trials, that information is up there as well?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. And I should make a note on varieties. So we don’t run a ton of those because they are sort of these large trials and they take a bit more work that way. We’re using those mostly to do sort of landscape comparisons. So we’re trying to look at how the canola varieties perform across landscapes since it’s larger. You can use that data for making a variety of decisions, and that’s certainly one of the things we try to do with it. But I would also recommend you get a look at the University of Idaho. Jim Davis over there does a great job every year of small plot variety trials. So just realize when you look at the U of I data, you’re looking at small plots. You’re looking at something that’s 20 by 5. And when you look at our WSU data, you’re looking at something that’s the width of a drill. So maybe 40, maybe 30 feet, and however many feet long. So anywhere from 400 to 600 feet long. So you’re looking at a much better representation of variety over a field when you’re looking at that.

Drew Lyon: And I think I will mention then the small grains website. There is a link to your website down at the bottom of the homepage. So they can get to it from as well quite easily. All right. Good information. Thanks for sharing with us today Isaac.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yup. Thanks for having me on Drew.

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Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s –( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.