Mother Nature, as usual, holds all the cards for farmers

Farmers are optimistic about the growing season, as long as
 the weather doesn’t tip too far either way

While the spring seeding outlook was generally good as of late April, farmers in different parts of the Prairies described being close to feast-or-famine conditions as they planned to get the 2015 crop in the ground.

Producers from mid-Saskatchewan and east were hopeful about getting the crop in as long as it didn’t rain, while on the west side of the Prairies farmers said a good rain would help to get the crop germinated.

And with commodity prices down, compared to highs of the past couple years, none of the producers interviewed for this Farmer Panel were leaning heavily toward any particular price-driven crop. The general feeling was to maintain the status quo, or tweak the rotation a bit with no major changes.

A Manitoba producer had started some fieldwork in preparation of seeding, in central and northern Saskatchewan it looked like the start of seeding was still 10 days to two weeks away and in southern Alberta, one farmer the third week of April already had half of his seed in the ground.

Here is what farmers interviewed for the May Farmer Panel had to say about the seeding season ahead.

Dustin Williams

Souris, Man.

With a bit of harrowing to dry out the fields and a new lighter seed drill, Dustin Williams was hoping to get all of his crop seeded in the coming weeks.

After fighting with excessive moisture last year, which left about 20 per cent of his farm unseeded, Williams was prepared to seed his crop with a new 40-foot New Holland single chute drill.

“It was time for some new equipment and we went with a narrower system that should be easier to pull,” says Williams who farms near Souris in southwest Manitoba. “We really struggled with moisture last year, but conditions are looking pretty good so far as long we don’t get any big spring rains.”

With sloughs around the country still full of water, Williams says there is obviously plenty of subsurface moisture, but the top few inches of soil were reasonably dry making it possible to travel with equipment. He was harrowing some of his fields to help dry out the seedbed.

He is making no major changes in rotation although he is adding yellow peas back into the mix after a several-year absence. He figured both moisture and market conditions were favourable for the crop. With about 1,000 acres unseeded in spring of 2014, he seeded a “fair bit” of fall rye and winter wheat last fall, which was looking pretty good this spring. And once conditions were favourable he’d begin seeding the rest of the crop which included spring wheat, oats, faba beans, soybeans and flax.

Larry Spratt

Donaro Farms, Melfort, Sask.

With soil temperatures still only about 1 C to 2 C in late April, Larry Spratt figured it would be May 7 or perhaps even May 15 before he would be seriously into seeding on his farm near Melfort in northeast Saskatchewan.

Excessive moisture has been the name of the game in his area for the past five years, he says. “Conditions right now are as dry as I have seen it in a long time,” says Spratt, who is part of a family run mixed farming operation — Donaro Farms. Along with purebred and commercial cattle, they crop about 5,200 acres of wheat, barley, oats and canola.

Spratt isn’t planning any major changes in seeding equipment or crop rotation this year. “It has been such a struggle the past few years, we’re just hoping to get the crop seeded and hopefully see some decent yields,” he says. Canola yields have been a disappointing 20 bushels per acre with barley ranging between 40 and 50 bushels, for example.

“With the uncertain conditions and with commodity prices as they are, it just doesn’t pencil out to be looking at equipment purchases right now,” he says.

The wet growing season conditions have taken their toll by increasing the fusarium head blight levels in cereal crops, he says. Spratt has become a firm believer in applying seed treatment to all crops, and he is also planning to grow a newer wheat variety with improved fusarium resistance. “I have to do what I can to give the crop the best head start,” he says.

While the weather has spoiled opportunity to produce malt quality barley, Spratt has switched to a newer, higher-yielding feed barley, CDC Austenson, in the past year. Producing about 500 to 600 acres of barley, some will be cut for silage for the on-farm feedlot and the rest will be fed as grain.

“Cattle are really the bright spot right now,” he says. “I was joking with someone they other day, noting that for the first time in a long time, this year cattle are not a hobby,” he says.

Brad Hanmer

Hanmer Seeds, Govan, Sask.

Six years of excessive moisture have left a mess of field conditions in Brad Hanmer’s part of the world in east-central Saskatchewan. The ground is saturated, farmland is still flooded, highways are damaged, standing water laps up against the driving lane of narrow rural roads, soil salinity will be a serious issue if and when it dries up — it’s a devastating situation with no easy or low-cost fix.

“The real story in our area is the destruction of the infrastructure,” says Hanmer who along with family members operates Hanmer Seeds near Govan, Sask., about half way between Regina and Saskatoon.

“In all fairness conditions right now on most of our farm are not that bad — in fact the best I have seen in sometime — but in the area generally it is really a devastating situation,” says Hanmer. And conditions are borderline “The soil is saturated so we can not handle any weather events between now and seeding. It is just going to be a challenge getting equipment, seed and fertilizer out of the field.”

In some respects, looking at Saskatchewan as a whole, the worst affected area is not that big “but if you travel one to two hours north of Regina and then take that block east to the Manitoba border it affects a lot of farmland and people,” he says.

“In some of that area last year they had 40 inches of rain — including 10 to 12 inches at harvest — so there is still crop out there that never got harvested. Some people are facing a very tough time. This country wasn’t built to handle 40 inches of rain and the question now is was this just a stretch of wet conditions or is this becoming the norm?”

While Hanmer says about 10 to 15 per cent of their farm is in the worst-affected area, the wet conditions have meant an overall change in farming practices. “Basically we took the direct seeding manual and burned it,” says Hanmer. “We’ve had to get out there with tillage equipment and work the fields to try and dry out this soil.”

He isn’t planning any major changes with his crop rotation this year. “With moisture conditions and markets we figure the best plan is to stick with what you know,” says Hanmer. “Canola and wheat will be our focus, and we’re also seeing more flax grown in this area.”

The pulse crop market is fairly good, so he’ll be seeding some faba beans, although scaling back on soybeans. And the market is favourable to peas although he is concerned about root diseases such as aphanomyces and pythium root rots.

Mel Stickland

Red Deer, Alta.

With faba bean seeding underway in late April, Mel Stickland says aside from conditions being cool, all was looking pretty good for the 2015 seeding season in his part of central Alberta.

“We are probably a bit drier now than we have been in recent years, and things are still a bit cool, so it will be a while before we seed the rest of the crop,” he says. “But faba beans seem to be able to handle cooler conditions so I started with them.” Stickland who also grows malt barley, wheat and canola says he has grown faba beans for a couple of years and was increasing acres from 150 to 300 in 2015.

“We’re not really changing the rotation too much this year,” he says. “The markets are down and input costs are still up so we’re not making any big changes. I had wanted to try some hemp this year, but that didn’t work out so we are growing more faba beans.” He had also considered growing peas but peas are more prone to fusarium root rot, while faba beans don’t seem to be affected by the disease.

“Actually we’ve had five or six pretty good years, so I am thankful for that and you can’t expect a winner every season,” says Stickland.

Bryan Corns

Corns Brothers Farm, Grassy Lake, Alta.

They had good moisture last fall, with some reasonable snowmelt earlier — and that has provided good subsurface moisture. “We haven’t had much moisture in recent weeks, so the top two or three inches is a bit dry so I don’t think anyone in this area would object to a bit of rain right now to improve the seed bed,” says Corns. “But overall conditions are good.”

Corns along with his brother Gary operate the family-run mixed farming operation at Grassy Lake, east of Lethbridge. Along with producing seed and forage crops such as triticale, sorghum, Sudan grass and millet, they also crop oats, spring wheat, winter wheat and canola. Along with crops they run a 430 head cow-calf operation.

“We haven’t made any major changes to our crop rotation this year,” says Corns. “And with the markets being so volatile I think a lot of people were waiting until the last minute to making their cropping decisions.”

Beef production has received the brightest market spotlight in the past year. Corns overwinters and backgrounds calves, marketing them as 750-pound yearlings. The most recent batch sold for nearly $2,000 per head, “which is a very respectable price,” he says.

Along with being feed for the cattle, the forage crops provide an important break in the grain and oilseed rotation, he says. They use forages in a number of ways. They are a large North American distributor of a several spring and winter triticale seed varieties.

On their own farm they plant a triticale and pea blend and a triticale and oats blend which can be cut for hay or silage. Corns also seeds a blend of sorghum/Sudan grass/millet (all warm-season C4 crops that can be seeded later in the spring) which is then left to be used as winter grazing for the cow herd. After two or three years of the forage/pasture blend the field is turned back to grain production.

While he is optimistic, Corns says there are three key factors to be determined. “With farming about one-third of the challenge is to get a crop out of the ground evenly, about one-third is to have good moisture during the growing season, and one-third is to have a reasonable harvest.” And on all points time will tell.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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