The Fence

Canola reaches new heights

The bar for canola yields is certainly rising, with Tasmanian farmer Michael Nichols hitting 5.8 tonnes per hectare from his 4.5ha crop in the season just gone.
While best practice for crop competitions maintains a minimum area of 8ha to be harvested for results to be formalised, the result is nonetheless a feather in the cap for the diversified operation based in the state’s North West.

Mr Nichols, the cropping manager at Redbank Farm, Sisters Creek, said the bumper yield from variety Hyola 970CL was a surprise given their average canola yield is 3t/ha and they recorded a 32 per cent drop in rain last year.

“We received 700 millimetres last year against our average of 1200mm, which to people on the mainland doesn’t seem so bad, but to us, it’s a shocker,” he said.

He planted in April, experienced an average winter and little spring rain, and then harvested in late December.  The crop received irrigation prior to flowering to top up the soil profile.

“Despite all of this, I had to windrow the crop because it was about seven foot tall.”

He also had a good run with the wheat crop, hitting 12.38t/ha in parts of the paddock.

Mr Nichols farms with fiancée Rochelle and children Ronan, Jack, Jordan, Max and Isabelle.

The farm is also home to Nichols Poultry, run by his brother Tristan, and Hillfarm Preserves, run by mother Carolyn.

The interest in the golden oil crop began in 2009 when the farmer realised their vegetable-based business model was in trouble.

“We grew mostly peas, broccoli and cauliflower until McCain’s closed down its vegetable processing plant in 2009.

“When we lost those, we knew we had to diversify and be self-sufficient in another way.”

The family did their research and decided to install a cold press and plant 7ha of canola in 2012.

After harvest, the grain can be stored in silos for easy access and once the oil has been extracted, the canola meal is sent to a neighbouring dairy farm as high quality stockfeed.

Hillfarm Preserves’ canola oil and condiments have gained a reputation in the country’s south, being used by some of the top restaurants.

“It’s high quality cold-pressed canola oil, not heat treated, used as a dressing and has a high smoke point. Once people try it, they want to try it again.

“Olive oil is better recognised at the moment.  It’ll take some time for canola oil to gain the same acclaim.”

Mr Nichols, whose parents immigrated from Leicestershire in the UK to Tasmania in 1982, said reading about British growers’ getting massive canola yields has spurred him on to grow a bigger crop.

“I subscribe to their Farmers Weekly to see what they’re doing with their crops.

“We might not catch them yet because they’ve had hundreds of years of building up soil fertility, but we can still improve our yields each year.”

This year he plans to grow a bigger canola crop by increasing irrigation and honing his harvest technique.

“I reckon I can grow a higher yielding crop, it just needs more water.  I’m hoping to use a travelling sprinkler gun because our pivots can’t traverse the hilly terrain where we grow canola.

“I’m also experimenting with direct heading versus traditional windrow and harvest.  I bought a Claas Lexion header from the UK, which has a variable cut front to extend cutting depth.

“I’m still learning about direct heading because I don’t like using chemical desiccation agents like diquat as I find you can still get some level of pod shattering.”

His canola program will consist of 17ha of Hyola 970CL and Hyola 650TT.

Their cropping program now consists of mustard seed, poppies, potatoes, onions, wheat and canola over six rotations of 30ha across 180ha of their arable land for cash and to go into the preserves.

“The six rotations reduce disease and weed burdens on farm, and the soil always works better after the canola due to its root structure.”

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