16 March 2001

NO ESCAPE FROM THE RAIN, EVEN IN CANADA

All over the world, farmers

are suffering from low prices

and extremes of weather

and Canada is no exception.

Ex-UK farmer Roger Haynes

(who we last featured on

Sept 25 1998) explains how

life has got tougher in his

corner of Manitoba, Canada

WE took over our 190ha (460 acre) grain farm near Neepawa in Manitoba in November 1997, having sold our 53ha (130-acre) dairy farm near Evesham, Worcs. We intended to make it into a mixed farm because 52ha (130 acres) is not enough to succeed with grain. In fact, the minimum size for a viable grain farm now seems to be 800ha (2000 acres) or more.

Our first year on the farm (1998) was reasonably successful. We planted 40ha (100 acres) of canola (rape), 73ha (180 acres) of barley, 12ha (30 acres) of wheat, 20ha (50 acres) of oats undersown with a lucerne/grass mixture and 12ha (30 acres) of maize. The crops were planted without any trouble, the harvested completed and the land cultivated ready for planting the following spring.

Commodity prices were reasonable as well, canola bringing $7.89/bu (£192/t), the barley $2/bu (£37/t) in the yard with no deductions. The oats/grass crop and maize gave us two full silage clamps and the existing alfalfa was made into hay.

Through the roof

We had hoped to buy feeder calves to fatten up through the winter but the price of calves went through the roof. No matter which way we did our figures, we could not justify the required investment – the projected prices for fat calves just produced a loss. We opted not to buy, deciding to wait and buy either cow/calf pairs or cows in calf the following year.

Spring 1999 rolled in and we thought we were ready to plant. A quarter of the land needed Roundup before planting, but before the ground had thawed enough to begin, the rain came. It rained and rained and rained. The land was impassable, the weather was warm and the weeds grew.

The rain stopped so we tried to spray, using two 4wd tractors hitched together to pull a sprayer. We sprayed 24ha (60 acres) without the wheels on the sprayer turning – we just dragged it through.

We could not get on the land to drill a single seed. No sooner had we begun to see a possibility of maybe seeding when the rain started again. It was the end of July before we were able to cross the land and by that time it was too late. We had no crops that year.

We were not alone. A total of 1.2m ha (3m acres) were not drilled in Manitoba and Saskatchewan because of the rain. There is no underground land drainage on 99% of the land here, so you have to rely entirely on natural drainage. On our clay land this is a slow process.

The government helped a little with a payment of $50 (£23) for every unseeded acre. Weeds took over the land. We sprayed them but they grew again, so we cut and baled or burned them. We decided that now was the time to invest in cows and from July through to September we bought some 30 cows in calf or cow calf pairs and a bull. We had plenty of food and straw in store from 1998 and with the baled weeds there was more than enough to keep them in corrals for the first year.

Better weather

Autumn 1999 brought better weather. We managed to cultivate everything and we were ready for planting. But we knew that we were going to have a big weed problem in 2000.

The farm had sparse calving facilities and we did not have calving dates for the cows that had arrived on the farm in 1999. However the first calf arrived fit and healthy on Jan 18, 2000. Early in the new year calves were sent to market and made an average of about $1.40/lb (£1.43/kg). We were very pleased and kept back the autumn calves to sell later in the year.

Spring 2000 arrived and the thaw came. The land that needed spraying before drilling was duly sprayed and all the land was drilled. We went through wet holes that had not been drilled for years and the prospects looked good. All the crops were sprayed and fertilised and we waited. The calves were doing well and we began fencing paddocks so that we could start grazing.

Then the rain came again. The ground became saturated, the ditches were running faster and deeper than they had following the spring thaw. We actually registered more rain in June and July that we had the previous year when we had been unable to plant. August brought better weather and we hoped the ground under the crops was going to be dry enough to be able to be harvested.

We booked contractors to pre-harvest Roundup 48ha (120 acres) of barley and they went in on the 18 August, after about two weeks of fairly dry weather. They sank in so far that they snapped a boom off the sprayer. They managed to finish the job ten days later.

The first week in September we swathed 40ha (100 acres) of barley. The weather forecast was good, but they got it wrong again – 4in of rain fell on the swath. We could not get on the land with the combine, the weather was warm and the swath germinated. We lost the lot.

We had a further 48ha (120 acres) of barley to cut, but the swather just sank in. So we called in contractors with a direct cut header. They arrived ten days later but pulled out after just 5 acres because the combine kept sinking. They returned two weeks after that and managed to get about 80 acres before the rain came again.

On top of the weather problems, commodity prices are at rock bottom. The best price for canola (rape) has been about $5/bu (£122/t), barley is $1.54/bu (£28) and wheat (depending on grade) $2-$3/bu (£33-£50/t).

Costs Rise

Meanwhile pre-harvest Roundup costs $12/acre (£14/ha) for spray only, nitrogen in the form of anhydrous ammonia has risen from $295 (£136)/t in autumn 1999 to $700 (£324)/t for application in spring 2001. This is for the fertiliser only; no application costs are included. As in the UK, fuel costs have gone up. In 1997, when we arrived, petrol was 53 cents (24p)/litre; it is now 73 cents (34p)/litre.

However calf prices are holding up well. Calves we sold in September between 400lb and 700lb (181-320kg) weight brought between $2.03/lb and $1.28/lb (£2.07-1.31/kg).

Land prices are also increasing in some areas and it is not only the immigrants who are buying; some local farmers are paying up to $100,000 (£46,000) for a quarter section of land (65ha/160 acres). This is for land only, with no buildings,.

The prosperity that is claimed for Canada is not here at present. Farming is difficult the world over and Canada is no different.

What is different from the UK is that we are not tied up red tape – there arent the rules and regulations or the number of records to be kept. The lifestyle is much freer and we would definitely not return to the UK. Farming is, however, an upward struggle especially if you have a mortgage.