Adding canola pays off for Overberg wine farmer

Raka Wines started diversifying its farming business three years ago by introducing winter grains and canola. This was so successful that the enterprise’s canola crop achieved the highest yield in the 2014 Southern Cape canola competition.

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Raka Wines, a family-owned farming enterprise near Caledon, is celebrating a considerable achievement. Although its vineyards form the backbone of the business, earning 80% of the income, the farm emerged as the winner in the Protein Research Foundation’s (PRF) canola yield competition during the difficult 2014 season. A 33ha land planted to the 45Y86 canola cultivar was entered into the competition. The land ultimately achieved a yield of 2,16t/ ha.

This achievement should be seen in context. After the relatively cool production years of 2011 to 2013, which saw industry average yields of 1,4t/ha to 1,8t/ ha, the industry’s average yield for 2014 was only 1,31t/ha. The latter was due to warmer weather during the flowering stage, which is detrimental to pod development. Canola plants tend to wean themselves when flowering during periods of high temperatures and drought stress.

Ideal for both
Raka Wines is located on the outskirts of a traditional small grain production area in the Overberg, but relatively close to the coastal town of Stanford. It has now become evident that the enterprise is ideally situated for vineyards (these cover 55ha) and canola, as both crops flourish in these cooler conditions.

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Piet and Elna Dreyer established Raka Wines in 1999, planting the first vineyards on the farm Remhoogte. Prior to this, Elna and the couple’s four children had farmed sheep, goats and citrus, while Piet had worked as a tjokka (squid) fisherman near Stanford. Subsequently, Piet expanded his fishing business interests by starting a boat engine import business. Their eldest son Gerhard (33) now manages the family’s tjokka boats in Port Elizabeth.

In the early 2000s, Piet invested in a wine cellar and bought additional land for the production of small grains and canola.
Younger son Pieter (28) says that their area is fortunate to have slopes and a cooler climate, which are excellent for wine grape production and producing interesting wine blends. Nonetheless, it has not been all plain sailing.

“Planting canola on slopes can be a challenge. While the cooler climate favours canola during its ripening stage, it unfortunately attracts more snails and slugs, which need to be meticulously controlled on canola lands.” As the viticulturist of Raka Wines, Pieter found himself on a steep learning curve when the family purchased the nearby farm, Doornkraal, in 2012. Buying the farm gave them an opportunity to diversify and create an additional source of income.

Good advice
Pieter consulted Heinrich Schönfeldt, a prominent grain producer in the Caledon district, as well as other farmers in the area before he started planting the winter crops.

“My biggest take-home message was to pay a lot of attention to weed control,” he recalls. “Although I’d previously often accompanied my friends in the area on their tractors when they were planting or harvesting, I was totally ignorant about spraying winter crops.”

Ryegrass poses the greatest weed problem in the Overberg, although bromegrass becomes more dominant once the farmer manages to win the battle against ryegrass. Within weeks of the Dreyers buying the Doornkraal land in 2012, their planter was delivered and Pieter started planting canola and winter grains early in May. He knew that canola deserved its rightful place in the portfolio of cash crops on farms in the Overberg, as one of its main advantages is that it is easier to control weeds on canola lands than on lands planted to other small grains.

Pieter planted canola on 90ha and achieved an average yield of 2,2t/ ha. The Dreyers bought another 70ha of the farm Doornkraal in 2012 and planted more than 180ha to canola. They also entered the canola yield competition for the Southern Cape for the first time, and narrowly missed winning it.

In 2014, the Dreyers leased an additional 350ha from a neighbour. The rental agreement stipulates that Pieter has to plant 100ha of the land on behalf of the owner. This means that they are able to plant canola and small grains on a 700ha portion of the remaining land.

The family follows a crop rotation system in which canola constitutes only 20% of the plantings, with the balance being 40% wheat, 20% barley, 10% oats and 10% lupins. The latter was included in the rotation system to add nitrogen naturally to the soil. Initially, Pieter followed a shorter rotation cycle by planting canola every third year on a land, but from next year, he will do so every fourth year to avoid the risk of diseases such as Sclerotinia, which has not really been a problem since he started planting canola.

Key to success
While acknowledging that the area’s generally cooler climate was key to his success in the competition, Pieter believes that several other factors played a part:

  • Excellent plant stand in the early growth stage;
  • Applying snail bait during planting and during a follow-up monitoring phase;
  • Planting at a higher density of 5kg  seed/ ha instead of the recommended 3kg/ha;
  • Planting Clearfield cultivars that are more expensive but have higher yield. This required spraying the herbicide, Cysure, post-emergence in addition to Roundup before planting, and Trifluren during planting;
  • Investing in improved technology such as a second-hand self-propelled swather to increase the crop yield;
  • Consulting experienced farmers about cultivars and implements and following their advice as well as that of agriculturists and soil analysts. 

According to Pieter, the farm receives an average rainfall of 550mm/ year, of which 420mm falls during the canola growing season. Based on regular soil analyses, Pieter draws up charts to identify any problems and applies lime, agricultural gypsum and phosphate using precision technology just before planting.

He points out that sulphur, boron and nitrogen are important to give canola lands added vitality. He once mistakenly applied boron and a herbicide together, but fortunately the damage was limited because he had treated only a small section before realising his mistake.

Hereford herd
In addition to overseeing the 13 different grape wine cultivars and the winter crops, Pieter has also introduced a commercial Hereford herd and is keen to improve the quality of the herd through careful selection and breeding.Pieter’s brother, Josef (30), is the winemaker and financial manager, while their sister, Jorika (26), is responsible for the marketing of the wines. Approximately 90% of the wines are marketed to the local market, while the remaining 10% is currently destined for the export market.

Raka Wines has also embarked on an empowerment project and a new 7ha vineyard has been planted for farm workers. Raka Wines will buy back the grapes from the beneficiaries of the project.

Email Pieter Dreyer at
[email protected].