Here’s what you learn when you ask a sampling of western Canadian farmers how 2016 went and what’s ahead for the coming seeding season:
- Corn and soybeans did very well in 2016.
- Looking ahead, disease pressure on cereal and pulse crops could change the cropping landscape.
- An early spring would be a blessing considering there is still crop to be harvested and “fall” field work yet to be done before seeding.
- Despite a challenging harvest last fall, a bit of spring moisture is needed heading into the 2017 seeding season.
- And, 2016 was a “Triple Crown” year for grains and oilseeds — high yields, high quality and decent prices.
While there are always some variables across Western Canada, most producers contacted for this Farmer Panel say 2016 had all the makings of an excellent growing season — at or near record yields, pretty good quality. And then in some parts of the West, October happened.
If you didn’t get rain, snow or both in late September and through most of October chances are you had a decent report on the year. But there was a pretty wide swath, especially across central and northern B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, where harvest came to a standstill through October. Again in many areas, a decent weather window opened up in November, allowing many farmers to get back in the field with combines. But depending where you farm there could be anywhere from 10 to 40 per cent of the 2016 crop still out in the field, and little or no fall field work done.
As western Canadian farmers take a look back and ahead here is what some are thinking as March arrives on the Prairies.
Grain corn and soybeans stood out as exceptional crops for Myron Krahn, who farms in southern Manitoba. He had record or near-record yields and high quality of both crops on his farm near Carman. Wheat and canola weren’t as dazzling.
“When you ask what went right in 2016, it is the corn and soybeans that stood out for us,” says Krahn, who along with his wife Jillian crops about 3,000 acres as part of Krahn Agri Farms Ltd. “There were a few weather challenges, but both crops did very well. They pencilled out with the best economics of anything we grew, so they will definitely dominate our rotation this coming year.”
They’ve been growing soybeans since 2002 and grain corn “forever.” Soybean yields weren’t a record, but were “very, very good” and grain corn was a record for their farm at 155 bushels (which was 10 bu. higher than their 2015 record of 145).
Krahn says southern Manitoba appears to be well suited to both corn and soybeans, and the 2016 growing season was almost ideal. It was relatively warm, there was timely, bordering on excessive moisture, but “these newer varieties of corn and soybeans seem to power right through that moisture,” he says. “Smaller grains and canola just aren’t able to cope with those conditions as well.
“Cereals were not great for us this past year,” he says. “The weather didn’t suit them and prices were down too. Corn prices aren’t that great either, but at least with corn you get the yield.”
While early 2017 is bordering on excessive moisture, Krahn hopes it is a dryer spring so he can get the crops planted. Some canola and wheat acres will be replaced by corn and soybeans.
Brad Hanmer says after a “very difficult” harvest in 2016, the big issue facing his and many other farms in Western Canada is how to manage for increasing crop disease pressures.
Hanmer, who along with family members operates a large-scale farming operation in the Govan area, about an hour north of Regina, says diseases such as fusarium head blight in cereals (wheat and barley) and aphanomyces, a root rot particularly hard on peas and lentils, could change the cropping landscape in Saskatchewan.
“We had a very big crop last year, there was lots of rain at harvest, it was a real battle to get it off,” says Hanmer. “And we did get it off. It required increased handling as well as the added cost to put most of it through a dryer.
“The big issue going forward in 2017 is that there is lots and lots of tough grain around the country affected by fusarium head blight that now carries vomitoxin and what are farmers going to do with that?”
After successive wet seasons, Hanmer says the disease pressure on cereals is building and the technology is, so far, not available to help farmers manage their way through it. Improved cereal varieties with genetic resistance to FHB are needed, as well as more effective fungicides. Hybrid wheats, which so far aren’t available, are another option.
“And fungicides are effective to a point,” he says. “They can control most of the fusarium. But when you are marketing this grain and the threshold tolerance for vomitoxin is one ppm and your sample has three ppm, what do you do with that?”
Hanmer says there are some management options such as replacing durum and soft white wheat acres, for example (those are wheats with longer flowering periods), with more hard red spring wheat (HRS has a narrower flowering period, which makes it slightly less susceptible to the disease) but that’s only a partial solution.
“If the market wants to pay me $15 per bushel for durum, I can produce durum free of vomitoxins,” he says. “But the market isn’t doing that. To produce wheat that is free of fusarium requires multiple treatments with fungicide. As it stands now even just one treatment doesn’t pay. In my books we have a broken model.”
Similarly he says wetter growing seasons are increasing the level and prevalence of aphanomyces root rot in peas and lentils. “The disease is like putting a plastic bag around the roots of your crop,” he says.
Hanmer says until solutions are found for these diseases, crop rotations will change. “With fusarium maybe I can grow more hard red spring wheat, or maybe I just don’t grow wheat at all,” he says. “And with aphanomyces affecting peas and lentils, that pushes me to look at other crops such as soybeans, which seem to do very well in these wetter conditions and they aren’t susceptible to aphanomyces. With the disease pressure on cereals and pulse crops, the oilseed complex is looking very promising.”
Gerrid Gust is giving up on growing durum wheat in 2017. The fourth-generation farmer says fusarium head blight in durum has been bad and increasing over the past three years — 2016 was a wreck.
“The big hit upside the head we had last year again was fusarium,” says Gust. “So we are all but giving up on growing durum in this part of Saskatchewan. Last year we had 7,000 acres of durum and not one bushel made grade. It was loaded with fusarium and vomitoxin.”
Working with a broker, Gust was able to move most of the durum into livestock feed markets, but he also had a few truckloads so heavily infected with disease, they were just dumped.
Gust, who along with family members crops about 14,000 acres total, says wet weather and disease took a toll on both durum and red lentils last year, so he’s changing his rotation for 2017.
He’ll be switching most of his cereal acres to a hard red spring wheat variety, AAC Brandon, which is high yielding, with good agronomics, and decent resistance to FHB. The Gust farm hasn’t grown a hard red spring wheat for about 15 years.
Along with hard red spring wheat, the 2017 crop rotation will include more acres of winter wheat and fall rye seeded in the fall of 2016. And this spring he’ll be seeding soybeans for the first time, and increase canola and yellow pea acres. And he does have half a section that hasn’t had a cereal crop for several years, so he may seed that to durum to see how it does.
“This has been one of the better durum areas, but we just have to back away from it due to disease pressure,” he says. “We did everything we could with proper agronomics and seed treatments, treatments for leaf disease and for fusarium and it still isn’t enough. We’ll have to hope plant breeding comes up with resistant varieties.”
The 2016 growing season had all the makings of one of the best years in a long time, says Todd Hames who farms in northeast Alberta, and “then came a harvest season we will never forget,” he says.
Hames, who farms at Marwayne near the Saskatchewan border, says he managed to get most of his crop harvested in late August and earlier part of September and then came the rain and snow which persisted through most of October.
“It was very challenging,” says Hames, who along with his family crops about 5,000 acres. He did manage to get everything combined. “Timing seemed to be everything. We’d have two or three days in a row that were pretty good, so if you were ready you might get a bit done before you were shut down. But if you had a breakdown just as those good days hit, you were out of luck.”
Overall the yields were very good and quality, up until the weather changed in late September, was also very good. He says the year started out with an early spring, followed by timely moisture “and July wasn’t too hot, which really helped too. You don’t want it cool, but if it’s warm without that heat blast, crops really respond to that.”
Hames says he feels fortunate because just a few miles to the west there is unharvested crop still in the field.
With a continuous cropping, direct seeding operation, Hames says he doesn’t plan any major changes in his canola, spring wheat and yellow peas rotation. While there is decent subsurface moisture, there is little snow cover this winter, so more snow or spring rains might be needed for seeding. “There’s still time for that,” he says. “I always have to remember that I haven’t lost a crop yet in January or February or even March for that matter.”
John Berger, who farms about 5,000 acres with his son Brad at Nanton, south of Calgary, says they had a great year in 2016.
Berger, who was interviewed for another feature on his herbicide program elsewhere in Grainews, says they like to start their weed control program in the fall, which helps to prevent yield losses due to an early weed flush in the spring. And they like to seed early.
Those factors helped to contribute to a successful cropping season, he says. “This past year (2016) I say we had the Triple Crown with excellent quality, high yields and a decent price,” he says. “We had everything off before the end of September. I am really happy with the program we’re following. I’m not sure how we could make it better.”