19 March 1999

Wheat is no longer

king of the prairie

WE always imagine that the largest acreages on the Canadian Prairies would be of wheat, but things have changed in the past few years.

Wheat, at todays prices, is now unprofitable – one farmer I met in Winnipeg was not growing any on his farm at all in 1999. Barley is also in the same league, which leaves canola (spring rape), flax, navy beans and oats.

Wheat yields are normally about 4t/ha (1.6t/acre) in the Winnipeg area, while canola averages 2.5t/ha (1t/acre). With an end-product that fetches double the price of wheat and only half the transport costs a hectare, canola has over the past two or three years gained a definite cash advantage. Flax is similar to canola financially, serves a rotational break and provides some extra income from the straw. Surprisingly oats are a better paying crop than wheat and are still grown.

The best-paying crop for the past few years has been navy beans. These are grown on contract for a price of £260/t, with yield in a good year of 2.5t/ha. Over the past few years earlier varieties have been bred and it is now becoming a mainstream crop around Winnipeg.

But navy beans are susceptible to frost and Winnipeg only has 100 frost-free days in the summer. We have about 150 frost-free days in East Anglia, yet we grow few navy beans. Why? Because Winnipeg has warmer summers than us and navy beans can be sown and harvested in 120 days. A bit of frost in the final ripening days is not a bother.

Canadian winters are a lot colder than UK ones. On Nov 15 this winter the frost was more than 380mm (15in) into the ground, by Jan/Feb it can extend 1.5-1.8m (5-6ft) into the ground.

These low temperatures produce wonderful frost moulds on heavy land. The mouldboard plough is never used, as it leaves the land too rough and the fine soils too prone to blowing. After harvest the land is dragged two or three times over a period of a month to incorporate the trash from the previous crop.

Severe winter

No crops are sown in the autumn, as the winter is so severe. All landwork has to be finished before the end of October when the frosts start to take hold. Spring work does not start until May, so conscientious farmers have plenty of time to go through their equipment and ensure everything is in good condition. Not-so-conscientious farmers, meanwhile, will have a month or two in Florida.

When land work starts in the spring there is little time to repair breakdowns. The growing season is short and the whole farm has to be sown. A farmer and his son (with some help from his wife) can sow 2000ha (5000 acres) in 10 days, but this can only be done by working long hours with large, reliable and well-maintained equipment. Wheat, canola and flax all need to be in the ground by the middle of May, with navy beans soon after. Most farms are family businesses and do not use hired labour except in the autumn.

The sight of a giant NH 9882 on triple wheels front and back, towing a 15m cultivating seeder with a 10t hopper behind, or a Case 9390 on triples doing the same job, is well worth seeing. If there are two of you to drive this rig it will probably work for about 20 hours a day. Seed and fertiliser have to be fetched from the yard, but the hoppers that are towed behind the drills hold 10t, so a fill up is only required every two or three hours. These large tractors cover 10-12ha (25-30 acres)/hour, the whole operation being done in one pass.

The crops grow quickly, but still have to be swathed for harvest to be completed in time. Swathers up to 9m (30ft) wide are used, anything wider would produce a swath that would not dry out if it became wet through. That is what happened in 1997, when 100mm (4in) of rain fell on many swathed crops and knocked a lot of the canola on to the ground.

But 1998 has been an excellent season. The crops were sown in good time, the growing season was first rate and harvest was early and rain-free. Some farmers described it as a harvest of a lifetime.

World price

The world price of quality wheat is £100/t on board an ocean-going ship, with about 1% impurities. The wheat is dressed at the port and the price the farmer receives is the world price less the haulage to the port and dressing charges. So the farmer may only get about £70/t. This year with such a good harvest many farmers averaged 4.5t/ha (1.8t/acre).

Farmers here can sell to a private buyer or to the Canadian Wheat Board. The CWB handles by far most produce, although farmers sometimes feel they could get a better deal privately. That is particularly so when their grain is sent to the west coast and they are charged more for freight than if it went south, east or north.

The shortest way to Europe is for the grain to be taken by rail up to Churchill, on the Hudson Bay. But the last boat of the autumn leaves Churchill at the end of October and the first one of the spring is not usually due until the first week in August, so there are only three reliably ice-free months a year. When I was there in the middle of November, pack ice was already surrounding the harbour.

Thunder Bay on Lake Superior is another export route, but ships have to go through the Great Lakes, various locks and up the St Lawrence Seaway, which is also closed by ice during the winter. The third option is by road to the Mississippi and then by barge to New Orleans. That involves going through the US, but is open all year.

The fourth option is by rail from Winnipeg to Vancouver. The 1200-mile journey involves crossing the Rockies.

The fact that Canadian farmers, like those in the US and Argentina, are growing less wheat at the moment is good for UK growers. It should mean a rise in the world wheat price, but that in turn will see increased areas being grown in North America, bringing marginal cropping areas back into production.

Lincs arable farmer

Nicholas Watts braved

the chill of a Canadian

winter to visit farms

around Winnipeg.

Wheat acreages are

down, he reports, and

rape, flax and navy beans

are on the increase