One Last Pea-ola Chat with Dr. Isaac Madsen

Canola Field

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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 podcast app and leave us a review 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 served as the extension agronomist for the Washington Oilseed Cropping Systems Project at WSU from September 2019 through August 2022. He first started working with canola in 2012 during his Ph.D. studies at WSU. Under the guidance of Dr. Bill Penn. Isaac and his family will be moving to Zambia in January of 2023, where he will be teaching soil science at — what college was that?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: African Christian University.

Drew Lyon: The African Christian University. Welcome, Isaac.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Thank you, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So for the last several years, you’ve been running these large scale canola variety trials. Can you tell us what you’ve been seeing from harvesting those all these years?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yep. And I would say we haven’t harvested our spring trials yet this year, but we’ve harvested our winter trials already.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: And so one of the one of the things we’ve seen consistently over the years with the winter canola varieties is the hybrids outperform the open pollinated, as you would expect. So there’s there’s a lot of both varieties or types grown in Washington State still, mostly non-GMO. Hybrid can be non-GMO as well as as open pollinated can be non-GMO. And so this year we had a really striking example of that in Almira, where our hybrid, our top hybrid is 30,100 pounds, right in that neighborhood. And then our open pollinated was closer to 2,000 pounds. So about 1,000 pounds difference, you know. So if you look at canola prices this year, north of $0.30, you know, some people have got some really good contracts, $0.45 in that area that that 1,000 pounds really starts to add up in your gross. So that’s kind of a consistent story we’ve seen in our winter canola over the last several years of doing it. I would say that’s kind of par for the course. That was maybe the most extreme difference we’ve seen is this last year, but it was a good, good year for production. And I think maybe those differences show up a little more on a good year than a you know, a stressed year when everything is just experiencing sort of equal levels of stress.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Hybrid seed, if my understanding is correct, is more difficult or expensive to produce or is a seed more expensive to buy?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yes. Yes. So you’re 100% correct there. I think that’s why people shy away from hybrids is because it is more expensive. And so you’ve just got to sit down and add that up for yourself at the start of the year, you know, which makes sense. And I think the difficult thing with canola is we’ve had so much trouble with establishment and winter survival so you don’t want to spend a ton of money putting in a crop that might die in the next month because of drought or might die in the next two months because of, you know, winter kill. The farmer I was harvesting with up in Almira, he said, if we can just get it to March, all you have to do is get your canola to March and if you get it to March, at that point, you’re pretty much golden. You’re going to make a crop. But getting it to March, there’s a lot that can happen between, you know, say you going to plant mid-August, between August 15th and, you know, March 15th. There’s a lot that can go wrong for a canola stand in that time.

Drew Lyon: Okay. But you’ve consistently seen these hybrids outperform the open pollinated. So it is something people should consider and kind of factor in their costs and their — I guess it raises your risk a little bit because you’re spending more upfront and you might not see that rewarded, but then again, you might.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: And I think it is also, you know, how are we going to think of canola? Are we going to think of it as just a rotation for wheat, or is it going to be a crop in its own right? And that’s a price, you know, it’s a question of price.

Drew Lyon: And $0.45 a pound, I think I know the answer to that one. [both laugh]

Dr. Isaac Madsen: But it wasn’t that long ago we were, you know, $0.17 a pound. So.

Drew Lyon: Okay. In previous podcasts, you’ve mentioned pea-ola. Can you tell us a little bit about your recent progress with pea-ola research?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah, so on pea-ola I’ve been working on that since I guess the first harvest was 2020. Winter pea-ola, that’s a pea/canola inter crop for people who haven’t heard the term before. There’s a lot of questions when you start intercropping. So originally we started working on nitrogen and the soils we were in, I think maybe had extra mineralization or something going on because we didn’t see any results from adding nitrogen fertilizer in those and those were all small plots. We harvested our first large strips this year beside our canola study. So that was good. That was zero nitrogen applied in those and it over yielded the canola by 25% as far as like gross poundage off the field. But most of that was peas, so it was about 70% peas and 30% canola. And so that’s a bit in the current sort of price set up that’s not really a winning situation. So I think really what we need to start thinking about is how do we ratchet up canola production and decrease pea production. And the idea is, I think moving forward would be seeding rates. And then actually maybe even though our small plots show no advantage of nitrogen, maybe we do need nitrogen. And so I think that’s where the research should go in the future. Unfortunately, we didn’t harvest. We had some seeding rate studies this year up at Davenport and they looked great all the way until the deer ate all the peas. So I was talking with another extension agent, county agent who was looking at them with me and he said, yeah, I think we’ll get more deer poop out than peas if we go ahead and harvest this. [Drew laughs] So we didn’t harvest it, which is a bit of a bummer way to leave the project, but I think there’s a lot there. I think there’s a lot to do at the large scale. So, you know, more more grower involvement and getting the community surrounding. I think there’s a lot of potential for over yielding. We just got to work out some of the problems and then it is supply chain, you know on the downside following harvest, how do we separate this in? How fast is it needed to be separated and things like that?

Drew Lyon: Okay. You’ve mentioned over yielding a couple of times. Could you explain what over yielding is?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. So over yielding, the true way to calculate it would be to grow a monocrop of canola, a monocrop of peas, and then pea-ola. And then basically you look at the amount of peas that you harvest from the pea-ola relative. So peas and pea-ola divided by monoculture peas and canola and pea-ola divided by monocrop canola. And that gives you what’s called the land equivalence ratio. And that is a way of quantifying how much you over yield. So we didn’t have a pea check in the large scale we did just because of our situation in that field. But that’s in my small plot studies and I’m going to get the number wrong. But it is it was somewhere in the range of 1.5. So you can think of that as a 150% increase.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: You know, we’re not 150% increase, but we were yielding 150% of the monocultures. And so that was really promising for me. And I kind of looked at the literature that’s out there and really consistently you’re getting numbers that’s not it’s maybe on the higher end, but it’s not an unreasonable. So you’re getting from 1 to 1.2 5 to 1.75 sort of in the literature. And so we’re we’re sort of hitting a number you might expect. And I think there’s a lot of potential there just if we want to increase our efficiency on a per acre basis.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You know, as I think about some of the work I’ve done in the past back in Nebraska with with legumes, a lot of times you don’t see that nitrogen benefit until the falling crop. So I wonder if, you know, a little nitrogen in the pea-ola and then it would be the next crop that we really benefit from, from the nitrogen fixation from the the legume in there.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah, the grower that we’re doing this with is going to soil test. He put in I think it was 90 pounds of N in his winter canola you know and it’s at whatever $1 this year $1.50 maybe depending on how much you’re getting it for. $1.50 would be crazy. But he’s is going to sample in the canola that got that fertilizer and then the unfertilized pea canola mix and see where his nitrogen winds up next spring.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Interesting. So how does that work after your departure from WSU? Is that we’re going to continue and who’s going to be doing that?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: So there is going to be some pea-ola work through the ARS unit, USDA-ARS. So Garrett is going to be doing some of that work and I’m really excited about it. I think you’re interviewing him later today.

Drew Lyon: I think he’ll be on a later podcast. Yes.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: So that’ll be great to hear what he has to say. And I really hope they’re able to maintain similar relationships with the growers and build more relationships and keep that running.

Drew Lyon: So you’ve mentioned a couple of things, but what do you see as the major challenges to pure adoption moving forward?

Dr. Isaac Madsen:  Yes, the main ones are logistics in my mind. And then in your field is weed science. You know, there’s you really limit your besides say you’re not going to put in any Stinger, for instance, on pure unless you want to get rid of your peas. [both laugh]

Drew Lyon: It would be a good deer control because there won’t be any peas for the deer to feed on.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Exactly. [laughter] So you limit most your broadleaf’s out of the system. So I think there’s work to be done there. And then logistics of, you know, seed cleaning and processing.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You’ve you’ve been involved with canola here at WSU for about as long as we’ve been dealing with canola. How do you see canola production changed? How have you seen canola production change over that time?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: My first work with canola was my it is I think 2012 was when I started that the first year of my Ph.D. and that was a side project actually that was not going to be what I wrote my dissertation on. And then through a series of events, that’s what I actually ended up writing my dissertation on. So, and I think should look back at the acreage. I’m guessing we were about in the 10,000 range. Don’t quote me on that but we were growing far less can all at that point in time than we are now. And I think, you know, last year we were over 110,000 acres. So some pretty massive changes. I think we’re also getting better at it, you know, so the probability that you’re going to get a crop up and that you can get harvest is increasing as we learn, you know, really how to get it established for spring canola. Spring canola has heat challenges at flowering, but with winter can you know, are we going to get it establish are we going to survive the winter? I think we’re getting incrementally better at those things. You know, a large part of that is genetics. So as is a there’s more acreage growing in it attracts more breeding efforts and more industry efforts to find varieties that fit for our particular region. And so I think we’ve seen a lot of that. These spring varieties are really improving. You know, when I first started in spring trials that NCC101S, the open pollinated was pretty dominant, there was 930 from cropland, was really dominant one too the last few years then vigor varieties. They’ve released some really competitive varieties there too. And so it’s good to see the competition and more of the more really competitive varieties coming in to our region is awesome. I think it’s better for the farmers to have that.

Drew Lyon: With an increase are you seeing increased pest or disease problems? I know when sunflowers moved into North Dakota, forget one that was seventies or eighties, at first there were no problems. And then as the acreage grew and they grew longer, they accumulate some pests.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. We’re starting to see some you know some of the diseases we’ve been, Jim Davis that you have I found some pretty bad blackleg this year down on the Camas Prairie area that’s a major problem in Canada is blackleg. It can be pretty devastating. Thankfully, we haven’t found any club root and that would be a good one. Everybody be careful. That’s not one we want here. And then I would say the flea beetles, this is anecdote. But they they feel worse to me scouting over the last few years. And that could just be environmental, but it could also be acreage, you know. So flea beetles are a complicated one interaction, you know, with the temperature as the plant grows and how fast that insecticide wears, the seed treatment wears off. And so that’s sort of what’s going on there. And and I would say maybe it’s the cool springs that’s causing problems? Cool springs that heat up really fast and that gives a good opportunity for the flea beetles and maybe it’s more acres. I know my wife was telling me that on the Facebook page for Palouse gardeners, there are some people whose broccoli or something got all eaten by flea beetles this year. So I don’t know. Is that more canola acreage or is that just the year that we had?

Drew Lyon: Okay, so take out your Ouija board or your prognosticator cap and tell us what you think the future of oilseed crops look like in eastern Washington.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s all it’s all sort of macroeconomics at the end of the day, you know, you have to make it work. So and if the current sort of price climate holds true, I would just continue to see acreage go up over the next few years until we hit some sort of equilibrium with the canola. I think there’s also renewed interest in biofuels investment going on sort of at the national level, the sort of the green energy ideas. And so I think we’re going to see some investment there in the research side. You know, that’s how this whole canola thing got started was bio uses and now it’s basically, you know, all used for food, but so I think we’ll see more there. And then, you know, there’s efforts to develop alternative to canola so camelina being one of those and Penny Cress being another one of those. And so I think that’s exciting to see. I think those are going to have to find slightly different niches just having watched them in the field, they’re they’re just not as far as long as canola is. And so I have my opinions about the right niches for those I think maybe in some sort of shortened irrigated rotation just because of some of the seeding depth and timing requirements.

Drew Lyon: Okay. What about sunflowers? That’s a crop I worked with quite a bit in western Nebraska. It is a summer crop, so maybe it’s a little tougher to fit into this climate zone where we don’t get much rain in the summer. Any thoughts on that crop?

Dr. Isaac Madsen: And so I’ve walked a few a fair number of sunflower fields here, I think, and you know, way more about sunflowers than me. But my understanding is they are sort of day length or our season length here is kind of short. And so that we don’t really get up to like the confection or oilseed quality or maybe it’s we do more birdseed. And so I think that’s just never going to demand as good of a price.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, it tends to be the I think growers grow it either for oil or for confection. And when they can’t make either one, then it goes in the birdseed because it’s the lower value area. Yes. The season. So oil is the last thing to lay down in the seed. So if you’re constrained on that side, you won’t get the oil content. I don’t know how it affects maybe not get as large a seed, although I think in the Basin where they irrigate, they grow a lot of sunflower for seed and maybe for confection.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yeah, I think, you know, you bring that irrigation in and you make a difference.

Drew Lyon: Heavy rain makes a difference.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: You change things.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I really appreciate you being my guest on these podcasts over the last several years, so we wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors in Zambia, hopefully we’ll get an update from you from time to time. Good luck.

Dr. Isaac Madsen: Yep, thank you.

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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 podcast 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.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.