Prairie crops seen thriving as U.S. Midwest bakes

As crops wither in the U.S. Midwest, Western Canada’s canola and wheat are thriving in adequate moisture and warm temperatures that are forecast to heat up further later this week.

Daytime temperatures will climb as high as the mid-30s C (around 95 F) by midweek, with hot spots in central Manitoba and southern and central Saskatchewan, according to Environment Canada’s five-day forecast.

Heat is necessary in general to advance crop development, although extreme highs can damage canola in its early stage of flowering.

This year, much of the western Prairies received ample rain in June, keeping soils wet enough to spur growth even as temperatures heated up above ground.

In Saskatchewan, the biggest growing province of wheat and canola, topsoil moisture levels were rated 72 per cent adequate, 27 per cent surplus and only one per cent short in the most recent provincial crop report released last Thursday.

"The wheat crop is looking very solid," said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and market analysis at the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg. "With a few exceptions, this (heat) is still what we want."

The CWB’s marketing monopoly on western wheat and barley expires on July 31, and the board will become one of many buyers of farmers’ grain for the 2012-13 crop year.

After two years of flooding left many farmers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba idle, Canadian growers this year are celebrating the double blessing of bigger crops and high prices.

In contrast, relentless heat and dryness in the U.S. Midwest has caused corn yield forecasts to shrivel up, thus driving up prices of corn, wheat, soybeans and canola.

Canada is the biggest exporter of spring wheat, canola and oats.

The heat is especially welcome this week in western Saskatchewan and Alberta, where the wheat crop’s development has slipped slightly, Burnett said.

Most of the western Canadian wheat crop is at the heading stage — the last stage before ripening — leaving limited time for adverse weather to trim yields, he said. Dry weather also keeps diseases, such as fusarium, under control.

Central Manitoba is one of only a few areas that needs rain, Burnett said.

Heat blast

With a quarter of the canola crop flowering in Saskatchewan — the leading province for oilseed production — as of July 2, heat can potentially cause petals to drop prematurely before pods form.

"Heat is always a problem," said Venkata Vakulabharanam, oilseeds specialist for the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry in Regina. "That would be a concern for sure, but how much of a concern will depend on what stage of the crop it is."

Farmers seeded their canola at varying times this spring, due to conditions that ranged from ideal to excessively wet in May and June, meaning that only some crops are now flowering and vulnerable to heat damage.

Vakulabharanam said he has not yet seen reports of heat blast — the term for damage to canola during flowering — but will be watching closely this week.

Daytime heat damage can be offset overnight, and temperatures are forecast to cool nicely to under 20 C (68 F).

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is estimating a record-large canola harvest of 15.1 million tonnes in 2012-13, and bigger production this year of wheat, excluding durum, of 21.8 million tonnes.

Summer has brought some problems to Canadian farmers.

Some parts of central and northern Saskatchewan, as well as western Manitoba, were swamped with too much rain during the planting season.

Storms swept across the Prairies in June and early July, hammering some crops with hail and strong winds.

— Rod Nickel writes for Reuters in Winnipeg.

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