To maximize the yield potential of winter canola, producers should topdress with nitrogen (N), sulfur (S), and possibly boron in the winter. Producers should make topdress applications with consideration for the environmental conditions, the nutrients needed, and the application method.
The best time to topdress winter canola is during the rosette stage when the canola is dormant. Most years, this can easily be accomplished by topdressing in January or February, since temperatures are cold enough to keep canola from actively growing. If nitrogen is applied as a liquid when canola is green and physiologically active, be careful that the rate applied does not cause leaf burn. Both dry and liquid fertilizers are effective products.
Current conditions for most of Kansas are wet. The greatest limitation to topdressing at this time will be waiting for the ground to freeze up or to dry out. Warmer December temperatures caused the crop to actively grow and add new leaf area, but the recent downturn in temperatures has slowed it back down. Canola can withstand this freezing and thawing process as long as the temperature swings are not too dramatic. Producers should check their fields for surviving plants before applying a topdress application (Figure 1). It may be advisable to wait until canola is actively growing again before topdressing in those fields where stand thinning is greatest. This will ensure that there is adequate spring stand to take to harvest.
Figure 1. Canola beginning to break dormancy at the appropriate time for topdressing.
A combination of nitrogen and sulfur can be used in the topdressing blend.
Nitrogen. About two-thirds of the total N needed by the canola crop should be applied as a winter topdress. This can be done at dormancy or just as plants begin to show increased growth, but before the plants bolt. Nitrogen uptake increases rapidly just before bolting. Topdress applications should be based on an updated assessment of yield potential, less profile residual N, and the amount of N applied in the fall.
Suggested N rates for five yield levels and a soil with 2 percent organic matter and varying residual nitrate-N levels is shown in Table 1.
For soils with 1 percent organic matter, add 15 pounds N for each yield and nitrate level. For soils with 3 percent organic matter, subtract 15 pounds N for each yield and nitrate level.
Table 1. Total nitrogen fertilizer needs for canola as affected by yield potential and soil test nitrogen levels in the southern Great Plains
Profile N test
Yield potential (lbs/acre)
Either solid or liquid forms of N can be used in the early spring. Once the weather warms and growth begins, applications using streamer bars or solid materials are preferred for broadcast applications to prevent/avoid leaf burn.
Controlled-release products such as polymer-coated-urea (ESN) might be considered on very sandy soils prone to leaching, or poorly drained soils prone to denitrification. Generally, a 50:50 blend of standard urea and the coated urea -- which will provide some N immediately to support bolting and flowering and also continue to release some N in later stages of development -- works best in settings with high loss potential.
Sulfur. If canola is deficient in S, the consequences can be very serious because the crop needs S to produce protein in the seed. For this reason, soils having less than 20 lbs/acre sulfate-S (10 ppm SO4-S) in the upper 24 inches should receive supplemental S. A good rule to follow is to keep S-to-N availability at a ratio of about 1 to 7. Another simple guideline is to apply 20 lbs S per acre, which will be sufficient for low and medium yield levels. Sulfur can be applied in the fall and incorporated into the seedbed or surface-applied with N in the winter topdressing. Canola growers may consider using elemental S, or sulfate forms (e.g. ammonium sulfate, or liquid ammonium thiosulfate). Since elemental S must oxidize to become plant available, it should only be applied in the fall. Ammonium thiosulfate or ammonium sulfate can be applied in the spring or fall, but thiosulfate should not be topdressed directly on green tissue or placed with seed to avoid short-term phytotoxicity.
Boron. If deficient, boron is one micronutrient that can have negative consequences on canola yield. Typically, boron deficiency is not something we have seen in Kansas. However, if there are micronutrients that could influence yield, then boron would be one of them. The most important thing is to know what your soil sample states. Applying boron may help to reduce flower abortion and enable efficient pod filling. However, there is not much room for error when comparing adequate boron fertility levels and toxic levels that might result from over application. Because of this, application rates of boron are often 1.0 lbs per acre or less. Soil and foliar applications of boron are effective. Foliar applications can be made with herbicides, and soil-applied boron can be either broadcasted or banded. Make sure applications are uniform across the field to avoid toxicity, and avoid contact with the seed for band-applied boron.
It is important to avoid crushing winter canola with wide applicator tires. Crushed plants will lodge and maturity will be delayed, which can slow harvest and increase the risk of shattering losses. For this reason, applicators with narrow tires are preferred. As for the question of whether broadcast or banding is best -- if temperatures are cold and the plants are dormant, topdress fertilizer can be broadcast. If temperatures are mild enough that the canola plants have resumed active growth, it may be best to use streamer bars or some other form of banded application to avoid foliar burn.