Although winter wheat plantings took a small spike upwards over last year, overall acres continue to decline across the prairies, especially in Manitoba. Statistics Canada reports a total of 695,000 acres were seeded in the fall of 2010, which still falls far short of the 1.21 million acres planted in 2008.
Winter wheat acres do tend to fluctuate depending on a number of factors, not least of which are economics and the environment. Both factors have been instrumental in the recent decline of winter wheat acres.
The late harvests of the past couple of years have presented some real challenges in getting winter wheat seeded. “Guys just didn’t want to take the time to switch (from harvesting to seeding) especially in a year like this year,” says Betty Turner, a long-time winter wheat grower near Killarney, Man.
DIMINISHING YIELD ADVANTAGES
On the economic side, winter wheat has lost some of its advantages in terms of increased yield, as improved spring varieties have caught up. “A few years ago yields were typically less for hard spring red and hard spring white wheat than for winter wheat,” says Turner. “It’s pretty common in this region now to get 70 or 80 bushels an acre hard red spring wheat and so guys aren’t that keen on putting it in any more.”
Turner had her best winter wheat yields ever this year, averaging around 100 bushels an acre, and with prices up around $5 to $5.50 a bushel at the moment she’s not complaining, especially as she knows that many other producers, particularly in Manitoba’s south-west and Interlake regions, weren’t so lucky.
Although very few winter wheat acres were seeded in south-west Manitoba this past fall, that hadn’t been the intention, says Scott Day, a diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture Food &Rural Initiatives, who is also a former winter wheat grower.
“We had a wet spring and a lot of un-seeded acres in relation to what normally occurs,” says Day. “Farmers were intending to plant winter wheat on some of those un-seeded acres this fall, so we were in a situation where we could have seen a higher than normal winter wheat crop. But by the time they were ready to seed into those un-seeded acres they were wetter than they were in the spring. So the acres have really dropped because the acres that were intended were not able to be seeded and the oilseed crops were harvested just too late and the ground was too wet in many cases to seed the winter wheat.”
In Saskatchewan winter wheat production had been rising each year since 2005 to a record 550,000 seeded acres in 2008, but only 240,000 acres were planted this past fall, again partly due to weather. This still represents a small increase in acres over last year, which could be partly due to fall seeding of acres that were too wet to seed in spring.
“In Saskatchewan we had a lot of flooded acres that were going to go in and some did,” says Dale Hicks, a field service representative with Western Ag Labs at Outlook, Sask. “But basically our hard-core winter cereal guys still got some in, we are just not getting a lot of new growers, although the few new growers we did get this year made up for the loss of a few regular growers who just couldn’t get anything seeded.”
Although there are many issues affecting winter wheat acres at the moment, farm size also has an influence, says Hicks. “We are seeing that the larger farms are still planting winter wheat,” he says. “They have the equipment and the manpower and so if they make the decision to put in winter wheat acres, they can devote a couple of guys to do it, whereas someone farming on their own can’t always do the same thing.”
Hicks feels that winter wheat acres are poised to climb once again once growing conditions improve. “I think the future picture for winter wheat looks better because as our old growers come back on and with a few new growers, if we keep them in the game, we should be at a point where we are getting back up to that 350,000 acres within a year.”
Although growing winter wheat still makes a lot of sense from an environmental and time management standpoint for growers like Turner, there are still some agronomic issues to overcome, such as problems with winter kill and disease. Fusarium, which devastated many winter wheat acres in 2005, was rampant in Manitoba’s Red River valley, but wasn’t as big a problem last year as leaf diseases for many farmers.
But those who consistently grow winter wheat do so for reasons other than economics and feel the risks are worth it. “We grow it still because it works well for our farm, because of all the labour issues and because it gives us a head start in the fall for harvest and for things like the weed competition,” says Turner. But it’s in wet years like the past one that Turner feels winter wheat’s potential shines. “We already know we are going into a wet spring again, and we are really thankful to have some winter wheat already in the ground.”
She does acknowledge that some of the traditional markets, such as the hog industry, that made it easy to move winter wheat more quickly in the fall, have dropped off, making storage an issue for some producers.
THE ETHANOL MARKET
But there may be hope that some alternative markets can pick up the slack and new varieties can help. A new, higher yielding soft white winter wheat variety, Ptarmigan, is already being grown and has apparently been developed to provide a higher starch content that better suits the needs of the ethanol industry, although it remains to be seen whether that will translate into higher economic returns for producers.
“In field situations over the last seven years the farmers are not getting consistent yield premiums and are taking a greater risk with disease,” says Day. “Thank goodness for the feed industry and ethanol industry or winter wheat acres would be even lower, because the main incentive to grow this crop is the ability to market it locally and quickly and with less grade issues.”
Although a higher starch content, which produces more convertible sugars, is definitely desirable for the production of ethanol, wheat also still has to compete with corn, which, all things being equal, is the preferred source for ethanol manufacturers when it comes to sugar intense crops.
Terra Grain Fuels near Belle Plain, Sask., however, was showing a lot of interest in taking winter wheat this year, says Hicks.” It typically gives them some supply when their stocks of wheat are low in the summertime,” he says. “It’s been working good for them.” The Husky ethanol facility at Minnedosa, Man., has also been accepting winter wheat as long as the fusarium level is acceptable.
There may come a day that the ethanol industry is prepared to pay a premium for starch content, although it would present problems, not least of which would be the additional testing necessary at some point in the supply chain and the question of who would bear the associated extra costs. The offer of a starch premium is probably more likely in the event of tight supplies and higher base commodity prices, when it would become economical to pay more for a premium product, but certainly neither corn nor wheat prices are anywhere near that point right now.