The Stafford County 2016 Banker's Award winner for conservation, Rick Hunley, looks to canola to turn sandy soil productive.

Rick Hunley, the 2016 Bankers' Award winner for conservation, has 15 cow-calf pairs, four horses and a donkey, and an avid interest in turning 2,000 acres of sandy Pratt County and Stafford County soil into a viable farm.

"The cattle are mainly a hobby I keep for the grandkids college money," Hunley said. "The horses are here because my wife always had horses, the donkey — he's just a companion animal; the ground — I've been farming a long time, first with my dad, then my father-in-law, things have changed over the years, but I'm getting to a point where it's working."

Hunley began farming with his dad in 1976, then took over HAS Incorporated when his father-in-law needed help. He currently grows wheat, corn and canola on 1,000 HAS acres plus additional fields that bring his total of ground to around 2,000 acres. Through the years he has worked closely with EQUIP and the soil conservation office to put in place a nutrient management program that requires him to closely monitor when and how much nitrogen he puts on his fields. He also utilizes strip-tilling and no-tilling practices that save moisture and leave residue on his fields for erosion prevention. Probably the one aspect of dry-land and circle irrigation farming that he gets most excited about is growing canola.

"There were a lot of people who tried canola about 10 years ago," Hunley said. "Kanza Coop even took it back then. But it was too hard to get a good stand because of freezing weather. It didn't stand up to the cold very well. Now we have some better varieties and the weather patterns have changed a bit. It's working real good for me. I'm pretty excited about growing it."

Hunley put more than 500 acres into canola last fall, planting it right into wheat stubble or even corn stalks left from previous crop rotation. This is his second year with canola in the crop rotation schedule and he likes what he is seeing so far.

"Having that canola out there as a cover crop has helped reduce mudholes," he said. "I don't have the runoff when it rains like I used too. Plus, I just sleep better at night knowing my dirt is not blowing. It holds down the soil real well."

Hunley liked the production he got off of 80 acres of canola last year, with 38 bushels per acre that would be similar to 76 bushels per acre if it had been wheat.

"For sandy soil it did real well," he said. "The main worry is freezing weather like we had just a week ago. I was worried, but it seems to have come through ok, and we don't have winters like we used too. It's a sandy soil crop and I have got that. I'm hoping this year confirms my hope that it will work out here."

Hunley's interest in canola was kindled by Erin Batman, Supervisory District Conservationist for the NRCS. Hunley worked with him to find seed, establish planting parameters and set up a marketing plan.

"I take it to ADM in Goodland where they have a processing plant that crushes the seed into canola oi," he said. "Payment is almost double that what I get for wheat, so it looks promising."

Hunley said communication with NRCS and Batman with soil conservation issues has always led to promising results in his farming operation.

"They send out a newsletter that explains a lot of the opportunities," he said. "I've gotten into AgSense control boxes on my irrigation circles, GPS on my spray tractor, windbreaks, CRP, cover crops and no-till."

Hunley continues to incorporate all those programs in his current farming practices, and he is hopeful the additional acres he planted in canola last fall will continue to provide hope for the future.