Winter Canola as a Cover Crop and Renewable Energy Source

Final Report for FNC07-661

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $11,898.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Steve Tennes
The Country Mill
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Project Information


Country Mill Farms is a 120-acre, fruit and vegetable farm with a farm market that offers “family fun on the farm.” Apple and pumpkins are the major cash crops. We also grow peaches, sweet corn, squash, gourds, ornamental corn and raspberries. Our goal is to market all of our farm products directly to the consumer. Over the last three years we have made a major effort to make our farm sustainable and energy independent. We now use our apple prunings along with pressed canola seeds (canola cake) to heat our farm market. For the past two years, half of our orchard has been certified organic. We have several experiments going on in the orchard in order to reduce off farm inputs. One example is the use of legumes like white and red clover planted in the tree rows to fix nitrogen that is then incorporated beneath the apple trees. This practice now provides 100% of the fertility needs of our trees.

1. Double crop winter canola with short season vegetables (pumpkins for this project).
2. Utilize winter canola as a winter cover crop.
3. Press canola seeds into oil on farm.
4. Use canola oil to power on farm tractors
5. Burn the leftover pressed canola seeds (cake) in the on-farm furnace to heat farm buildings.

Of these five goals all work successfully accomplished with the exception of #1 double cropping with pumpkins. Pumpkins were planted after the harvest of canola, but it appeared that the pumpkins had insufficient time to grow before flowering was initiated. Only 10% of a crop was produced from these pumpkins. Outside of this SARE project, the project leader has already secured and planted a different variety of winter canola that will mature three weeks earlier in the summer of 2010. It is believed that a canola harvest date of June 15th will give sufficient time for 90-day pumpkins to fully develop to a full yielding potential. Furthermore, the yield from the canola field was severely reduced by winter kill. This new variety should help avoid that.

Planting. Prior to planting, the project leader located and visited a farm in Michigan that was growing winter canola. He visited it during the harvest of winter carnival. Observances from that farm’s canola plots were integrated into this project. In September of 2008, eight acres of pumpkins were harvested. On September 24th, 2008, a disc and cull packer were used on these eight acres to perform a minimum amount of tillage in one pass. On September 25th, these eight acres were planted with winter canola using a Great Plaines Drill that was rented from our local conservation office. Of these eight acres, seven were planted with 15” rows at five pounds of seed per acre (setting #15). This plot will be referred to as Plot A. The other one-acre (of the eight that was tilled) was planted with 7.5” row spacing at five pounds of seed per acre (setting #5). Note the planting density in the 7.5” rows was half that of the 15” rows. This plot will be referred to as Plot B.

One additional acre of pumpkins was left unharvested until October. With the pumpkins in the field, canola was broadcasted on this one-acre plot at a rate of ten pounds per acre. This plot will be referred to as Plot C. Employees and customers visiting the farm market in October harvested the pumpkins in Plot C. No fertilizer or pesticides were used in this project.

On November 12th 2008, a site visit was conducted by Steve Tennes, Project Leader, Dr. George Silva, MSU Extension, and Dr. Russ Freed, a canola expert from Michigan State University. Dr. Freed commented that the germination in all three plots looked excellent. Despite no effort being made to initiate soil to seed contact, Plot C had similar germination rates as Plots A & B. The main difference was that Plot C plants were at different stages of growth. Dr. Freed noted that having canola at different growth stages may help avoid having a total winter kill. This proved not to be the case. With a good crop of canola in the ground, the oil seed press was purchased on November 19th, 2008 with assistance from grant funding.

By late March of 2009, it was a apparent that the winter canola field had suffered severe winter kill. In plots A & B, it is estimated that only 25% of the canola plants survived. In plot C, less than 1% of the canola plants survived. Plot C had germinated later in the fall because it had been broadcasted. After a site visit from Drs. Silva and Freed it was determined that we should try planting earlier and try a more hardy variety.

Despite the disappointment of severe winter kill, the canola flowered from early May through mid-June. The extremely wet spring (the wettest April in history at our location) caused the plants to continue to flower late when they should have been finished by June 1st. The late flowering delayed harvest.

On July 5th 2009, the canola field was combined directly with a wheat head. Due to the winter kill, the low plant density allowed ragweed to grow beginning in late June to a height of about 12” high. Luckily, the combine head was able to cut the canola just above this point (approximately 15”) and avoid most of the weeds). During harvest, some of the canola was lost due to shattering pods and combine calibration. The entire field only yielded 20 bushels of canola. While this yield is nearly a complete disaster it was still enough canola seed to press.

The canola seed was placed in large pallet tanks. These 275 gallon pallet tanks had their lids cut off. Then 3” socked, perforated field tile was put in the tank before the canola was put in. A leaf blower was then inserted into one end of the field tile. The leaf blower blew air through the tile and out the hundreds of slits in the tile to help dry the canola seed. The blower created a positive air pressure that then pushed the canola seed out the bottom of the tank once the valve was turned on. The seed went out the valve, down across a fine wire mesh and then down a tube to the oil press. The oil press then pressed the oil out into a tank where the sediment went to the bottom. The canola cake came out the end of the press and was burned in the on farm boiler to heat the building. The oil was then filtered using a coffee filter to get our last bits of sediment.

During July when it is over 70F, this oil was burned directly in the diesel tractor. This is because the oil will gel up at temperatures below 70F, thus clogging the fuel filter and return lines. Modifications were made to a diesel farm tractor to burn canola oil and diesel fuel. Essentially, two separate fuel systems are installed one for canola and one for diesel fuel. The tractor starts and shuts off on diesel fuel so that the filter and return lines always have cold diesel in them and not gelled up canola oil. There appears to be no problems in running canola oil like this as long as the tractor is allowed to warm it up sufficiently before switching to canola oil.

Duane Smuts, farmer, combined the canola and scouted the canola in preparation of harvest. Dr. George Silva, MSU Extension Agent, assisted in the planning, planting, scouting, of the canola. Dr. Russ Freed, MSU Professor and canola expert, assisted in the planning and scouting of the canola. Dr. Bernie Tennes, Registered Professional Agricultural Engineer, assisted in the modifications necessary in the pressing, filtering and usage of the canola oil & pellets. Steve Tennes, project leader, was involved in the planning, planting, scouting, harvesting, pressing, and using of the canola seeds and oil. Steve also did all of the outreach and educational presentations. Dylan Haigh is hired employee of Country Mill Farms. He worked in all aspects of the project assisting those people above.

The fact that Plot C germinated as well as it did was contrary to information observed at the other farm in July of 2008. At this other Michigan farm (not in the project), winter canola was planted after winter wheat harvest with no herbicides. This created a great deal of competition from the volunteer winter wheat which out competed the canola in many parts. It has been learned that proper crop rotation is critical to establishing winter canola. Furthermore, wet areas of fields should be avoided as winter kill can reach 100% if the plants are underwater during an early winter thaw as was observed at the other Michigan farm. Harvesting techniques were also observed.

In July of 2009, the yield of plot C was zero. The yields of Plots A and B were 20 bushels. These results were not what we expected. This was all attributed to severe winter kill which hindsight tells us was because the plants were not developed far enough or the variety (Witchita) could not handle the low winter temperatures of southern Michigan.

In the fall of 2009, separate from this project we have now planted a new variety one week earlier. Planting earlier with a hardier variety should make this project work well.

One advantage is that the oil can be pressed during the off-season, the winter months. This is key to making the farm sustainable since a farmer’s time is very limited during the growing season. Our farm is committed to making this concept work. The challenge is finding the right variety and planting date for the region.

During the fall of 2008, the Michigan Farm News written by Michigan Farm Bureau featured write-ups about this project and the planting of the winter canola in their crop update from around the state. This generated much interest in the form of phone calls and informal visits to the farm. Every farmer that wanted to come visit was allowed to even though it wasn’t a formal field day. Several area farmers have now planted canola plots ranging from 5 to 30 acres.

On Monday, July 13th 2009, the United States Secretary of Agriculture visited Country Mill Farms, the project leader’s farm, as part of his quest to visit one farm in all 50 states. This farm was chosen due to several of the ongoing renewable projects. During the visit, Secretary Vilsack was given a personal tour and explanation of this canola project along with other aspects of the operation. During the secretary’s hour-long speech, he highlighted the renewable energy projects of Country Mill Farms that were on display in the back of the barn. He encouraged everyone to begin looking at all renewable energy opportunities, such as the canola project.

This project took this opportunity to conduct project outreach in conjunction with the secretary’s town hall meeting. The canola press, tractor, and outreach materials were on display for farmers and governmental officials to view during the event. Project leader, Steve Tennes, farmer, Duane Smutts and MSU Extension Agent and cooperator, Dr. George Silva were all present at the event. Several mini explanations were given. It was an excellent opportunity to spread the word about the project since many of the visitor who came to see the secretary came two hours in advance. Leading up to the event, all statewide news organizations publicized the event as being open to all, not just farmers. Furthermore, news interviews ahead of the visit highlighted that renewable energy projects would be highlighted and on display for farmers to learn about. Over 300 people attended the event, including several innovative row crop farmers who are now interested in growing canola. This meeting also led to other meetings between the project leader and the State of Michigan’s Department of Corrections that now plans on using canola oil to fuel all of their transportation equipment. Currently the 30 acres of canola grown by the Department of Corrections is scheduled to be pressed on this project’s oil press. Two different soybean growers have also made contact with the project leader planning on using the press to produce their own soybean oil for sale.

This project has created enthusiasm, hope, and opportunity for several farmers across the state. Thanks to SARE many farmers are now considering unique opportunities to make their farming operations more financially and environmentally sustainably. We used this date as our main field day instead of November 6th. This decision proved to be excellent since an extremely wet fall left many farmers finishing their soybean harvest at the end of October and just starting corn harvest in November. Needless to say the November date would not have been well attended by farmers. The July 13th date worked well for farmers since it was just before wheat harvest began. This field day initiated cooperation between a local farmer and the project leader on growing and pressing canola and organic soybean oil.

Additional outreach was done on Saturday January 16th, 2010 at the 2010 Michigan Family Farms Conference, “Holding on to Good Food, Good Families and Good Farms" in Battle Creek, MI. A thirty-minute presentation was given to 40 farmers interested in SARE projects. The outreach included a Power Point presentation with a four-page handout.

Thank you for having a well-run program. Is it possible to have more material from the projects available online so that they can be downloaded directly from your website ( For example, Power Point Presentations from the projects, etc.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.