Hope springs eternal for the 2020 crop year

If weather, markets and politics align even somewhat better, it should make for a good crop year

Believe it or not, exactly the same early-spring conditions persist for the 2020 growing season on all western Canadian farms, according to several producers contacted for the March 10 Farmer Panel — that universal condition? The optimism that a good year lays ahead.

None of the panel members exactly stated that things couldn’t get much worse, but all agreed it was time to turn the page on 2019 and look forward to what has to be a better crop year in 2020.

The optimism follows one of the toughest years from several standpoints, say western farmers. Wide swings from not enough to too much moisture, immature and stagey crops, crop pests, snow, rain, waiting for ground to freeze to resume harvest, a record amount of grain drying, and crop left in the field over winter — those are just some of the descriptions of the 2019 crop year. And if crop production challenges weren’t enough, that was all further complicated by some weird developments with market access and grain transportation issues causing ongoing marketing uncertainties — it was a classic year for perhaps an understated idiom “if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”

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If there is one silver lining to the mixed bag of 2019 weather conditions, most regions of the West expect at least decent available soil moisture to get the 2020 crop growing. But even that ranges from some parts of the Prairies looking for a bit more snow to help replenish soil moisture at seeding, while other areas went into winter with saturated soils. Even a bit more snow or rain there could tip the balance from being a manageable seeding season, to an ugly, muddy mess.

Here is what Farmer Panel members had to say about their thoughts in March for the coming growing season.

DON SHEPERT

St. Brides, Alta.

The management team at Don Shepert’s farm meets daily to discuss strategy for the 2020 growing season.

“That is really just me and my wife having coffee in the morning,” says Shepert, who grows peas, barley and canola at St. Brides, not far from the north-central Alberta community of St. Paul. “The only changes we’re working on for 2020 is survival mode and figuring out a way to make everything work.”

While Shepert half jokes about some of the challenges they faced during the 2019 growing season, the underlying message is that poor growing conditions, followed by poor harvest conditions set the farm back on its heels.

“We still have a bit of barley left out that we weren’t able to get harvested,” says Shepert. “It’s not that many acres compared to some, but for a smaller farm like ours, it’s enough, it hurts.”

Shepert says it was one of those seasons where it was hard to catch a break. He got the crop seeded in May, but conditions were dry. Nothing really emerged and got growing until they received two inches of rain June 7.

“Germination was spotty, the crop was late, and even though we applied herbicide there was heavy weed pressure, so that had an impact,” he says.

Then harvest was delayed by rain and snow, with Shepert making a push in November to get the last of it combined.

“I’m getting old, and I have never had to plug in the block heater of a combine before,” says Shepert. “But this year, I had to plug in the combine. I got up at 5:30, it was -18 C, I’d start the combine and let it run for an hour to get loosened up and then head out to the field.” Yields were down and the crop was tough.

“Our canola yields were about half, and most of it came off at 18 per cent moisture,” he says. “We were fortunate enough to get what yield there was cleaned, sold and shipped, but then there was the drying cost. The returns on our canola were about 35 per cent less than they should have been with half the yield, and that’s pretty painful.”

Shepert says peas, barley and canola will be seeded in 2020, although they’ll need to talk to ag lenders about getting operating funds, “and that’s all a bit stressful too,” he says.

“We have reasonable moisture to get the crop started, so hopefully we have a better growing season,” he says. “How often have we heard it said, ‘I just need one good year to get caught up,’ so that’s what I’m hoping for in 2020.”

DALLAS VERT

Conquest Agro, Kurriemuir, Alta.

Feeling fortunate they got a decent crop off before some of the adverse weather conditions hit last fall, Dallas Vert says he’s not planning any major changes on their southeast Alberta family farm, but he’s always interested in fine tuning.

Vert, who along with his wife, Natasha Pospisil, operate Conquest Agro Service Ltd. at Kurriemuir, northeast of Hanna near the Alberta–Saskatchewan border, says he is switching pea crop type in 2020 and also improving field efficiencies.

Within the Conquest Agro Service name, Vert crops about 11,300 acres of grains, oilseeds and pulse crops, they also own and operate Dryland Agro, a crop input and seed retail outlet, and the Kurriemuir Ag and Oil general store.

“I do feel fortunate we did get the crop off in pretty good condition,” says Vert. “One thing that helps is that I aim to seed as early as possible, which helps us get an early start on harvest.”

Dallas Vert, with help of son Reese, checks seeding depth and soil moisture during the 2019 seeding season.
photo: Courtesy Natasha Pospisil

Vert uses one 76-foot Bourgault air drill to seed all 11,300 acres over a 25-day seeding window. He likes to get started about April 15, which means 60 to 70 per cent of the crop is seeded by early May. With seeding equipment running nearly 24 hours a day, Vert uses employees from Dryland Agro to keep the drill running.

“I start seeding early and the retail business doesn’t get really busy until the early part of May,” he says. “So, I have employees who can help get most of the seeding done, before they need to get back to the retail side.”

After running through some “what-if” scenarios with different crop cost and production figures, Vert has settled on a 2020 rotation that will include canola, hard red spring wheat, maple peas and winter wheat. He has some silage corn in rotation as well that he sells as a standing crop to local feedlots.

In about five weeks from now, Dallas Vert hopes to start seeding on his east-central Alberta farm — early seeding should mean earlier harvest.
photo: Dallas Vert

“With the market down for yellow peas, I am switching to maple peas this year,” says Vert. Produced under contract, he says they are a bit more difficult to grow, but have a higher value. While maple peas can grow too tall under wet conditions, Vert says they did well on his dryland farm last year.

LINDA NIELSEN

Starbuck, Man.

After a miserable harvest season in southern Manitoba last year, resulting in wet field conditions heading into winter, Linda Nielsen is hoping to improve seeding efficiency this spring.

Nielsen, along with family members, crops about 1,300 acres of canola, oats, wheat and soybeans near Starbuck, southwest of Winnipeg. Now with a double chute system on the air seeder, she is able to apply more fertilizer at time of seeding. For 2020, she is hoping to eliminate one spring field operation.

“In previous years, we have gone in ahead of the seeding operation to broadcast fertilizer and then harrow it in,” says Nielsen. “So, this year, the air seeder is outfitted with a double chute system so we can apply more in one pass. Seeding will probably be a bit slower as we’ll need to stop and refill more often, but hopefully it does a better job.” The air tank has three compartments — nitrogen fertilizer, blended fertilizer and seed.

Nielsen is also looking at a split- rate application of fertilizer, and is evaluating two of the nitrogen-enhanced efficiency products as well.

“I’m trying a few things with the fertilizer,” she says. She normally applies between 140 and 150 pounds of nitrogen on canola, for example. This spring she’ll apply 100 pounds of nitrogen on one field of canola and 120 pounds on a second field at time of seeding.

“Then the plan is, depending on growing season conditions, to come back in and top dress apply the remaining nitrogen,” says Nielsen. Part of the nitrogen will be applied in the form of ESN (polymer-coated urea) while another treatment will involve Agrotain (urea treated with a urease inhibitor) to evaluate their effectiveness under wet conditions.

And she is expecting wet conditions this spring. Harvest ended in November with some 3 a.m. starts with the combine on partially frozen ground trying to get the remainder of the canola and soybeans harvested. She knows there are some ruts that will have to be dealt with before seeding.

JENNETH JOHANSON

Lac Du Bonnet, Man.

Jenneth Johanson isn’t planning any major changes to her cropping plans for 2020, although she is hoping for a nice, orderly and dry transition from winter to spring on her Lac du Bonnet-area farm northeast of Winnipeg.

She waited for frozen ground in November to get her soybeans harvested last fall. With rain and snow through September and October, she knows the ground is saturated, there will be field ruts to deal with before seeding, and that 30 per cent of field work usually completed in the fall will now be added to the spring workload.

“I’m very concerned about spring logistics,” says Johanson, whose crop rotation includes oats, hard red spring wheat, soybeans and canola. “I usually get 25 to 30 per cent of fertilizer applied in the fall to ease the spring workload, but that didn’t happen last year. So, I am hoping there is a nice transition to a dry spring so we can get everything done.”

MARCEL VAN STAVEREN

JVM Van Staveren Farms, Griffin, Sask.

In southern Saskatchewan, Marcel van Staveren says it is difficult to argue with the numbers in 2020 as he reviews crops expected to produce the highest return on the family farm near Griffin, east of Weyburn.

Particularly looking at cereal crops like hard red spring wheat versus durum, he says while yield and quality lean towards hard red spring, prices seem to favour even poor-quality durum.

Durum and red lentils are two of the important crops to be seeded on the van Staveren farm in southern Saskatchewan in 2020.
photo: Nathan van Staveren

Van Staveren says depending on the year and markets, sometimes their cereal acres swing 70 per cent to spring wheat and 30 per cent to durum (like it was in 2019) and sometimes it flips the other way.

When the crops were harvested, the earlier-maturing spring wheat yields were 22 bushels (about 40 per cent) higher than the durum and the wheat was a decent quality No. 2 grade with good falling numbers.

Being a few days later in maturity and with challenging harvest conditions, the durum had sprouting issues, was tough and graded a No. 5. “It was obnoxious to harvest and ended up being the ugliest durum I’ve ever seen,” says van Staveren.

The confusing part of the whole story is van Staveren has been able to market that poor-quality, ugly durum for $6.03 per bushel, while at the same time he’s “struggling” to find a $6.03 offer for the much higher-quality spring wheat.

“If the market is that interested, I doubt there will be very little high-quality durum left anywhere in the country by August,” he says. “So, I’ll be growing more durum in 2020.”

On the 21,000-acre farm, some 10,000 acres are allocated to grain crops. So, for 2020, he plans 7,000 acres of durum and 3,000 acres of hard red spring wheat.

The van Staveren farmstead near Griffin, Sask. — soil moisture reserves replenished with 2019 moisture.
photo: Nathan van Staveren

The other bright spot in the van Staveren rotation has been red lentils. The farm took about a 12-year sabbatical from pulse crops in favour of soybeans, which have done quite well. However, he’s been trying red lentils back in rotation the past couple of years.

“At one time I didn’t think we could get even a 30-bushel yield from red lentils,” he says. “But in 2018, we harvested 42 bushels and in 2019 they produced 45 bushels. At about 18 cents a pound that works out to about $12 per bushel. For the past two years, red lentils have been the No. 1 paying crop on the farm.”

Van Staveren says he’s also been impressed this winter to find reduced input prices, which will also help the bottom line. The price of phosphate is down considerably from a year ago and he was able to find some generic herbicides that were about half price, or $8 per acre cheaper — even nitrogen was $2 to $3 per acre cheaper than a year ago. He says these and other price breaks represent a significant savings in input costs.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

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

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