Wind gusts sweep away swaths | Damages to canola crop extensive, say analysts
Harvest was in full swing on the Bellamy farm near Rosebud, Alta., when what some have dubbed a billion dollar wind suddenly whipped up and shattered their prospects for a good crop.
“My husband thought his combine was going to blow over. Seriously. You cannot imagine the strength of this wind,” said Elaine Bellamy.
Gusts of up to 100 km/h toppled four grain bins securely anchored with ropes and hooks.
But the real damage was in the fields, where 3,000 acres of canola lay in tidy swaths that quickly became unkempt.
Bellamy heard one report from an astonished couple who were out for a drive in the vicinity.
“They literally saw the canola lifting 30 to 40 feet in the air and just swirling,” she said.
Tallying up the damage is a daunting task because it varies from field to field and even within a swath, but Bellamy said she wouldn’t be surprised if a crop that usually yields 50 to 70 bushels per acre averages 30 bu. an acre.
“Let’s just put it this way, the combine monitors dropped to half. We lost a lot,” she said.
Losing 30 bu. per acre on 3,000 acres of canola would result in losses of more than $1 million on one crop on one Alberta farm.
Larry Weber, analyst with Weber Commodities Ltd., estimates that 1.56 million tonnes of canola worth $1 billion have blown away on the Prairies. His estimate is based on damage reports from an unscientific poll of 47 farmers.
The losses are expected to be worst in Saskatchewan, where half of the province’s canola crop was sitting in swaths when the winds swept up. Most of the damage was caused in the north, where two-thirds of the canola crop was in swaths.
Venkata Vakulabharanam, provincial oilseed specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, thinks Weber’s estimate that one-quarter of what remained to be harvested has been lost because of pod shattering is the absolute worst case scenario.
However, there is no denying that the damage is extensive. He said a conservative estimate would be that the wind caused a 10 percent loss in the province’s average yield, dropping it down to 25 bu. an acre, which would shave 480,000 tonnes off of canola production in Saskatchewan.
Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, doesn’t think Weber’s figure is far off the mark.
The damage was considerable on his farm near Wynyard, Sask. Much of the 1,200 acres of canola he had remaining in swaths was broadsided by the west-northwest winds because most of his swaths ran in a north and south direction.
“In places, they’re scattered. In other places they’re rolled into ropes that extend across the next swath,” he said.
Some of his neighbour’s canola blew into his fields of identity preserved Nexera canola, which will create yet another harvesting headache.
Based on experience, Hall is expecting at least a 50 percent reduction in yield on his remaining canola. He also lost wheat heads in the storm.
He said it’s frustrating because a high-value crop that looked so promising not that long ago has been hit hard by disease and wind.
“It’s another kick in the ass,” said Hall.
Wind damage was limited in Manitoba, where spring cereals were 95 percent complete and canola 70 to 100 percent finished when the winds started to howl.
John Paul Craigg, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, said the initial wind blast, which came on the evening of Sept. 10, was caused by an intense low pressure system that brought with it a cold front and thunderstorms.
Many communities in east-central Alberta and west-central Saskatchewan experienced wind gusts in excess of 100 km/h, which is approaching the speed of a hurricane or a weak tornado.
The low pressure system was followed by sustained winds of 50 to 60 km/h and gusts of 70 to 80 km/h from the west-northwest that ravaged the prairie landscape over the next two days.
“It wasn’t in the wind warning category, but it lasted a long time,” said Craigg. “It was just a bad time for it to come since things were ready to be harvested.”
Eugene Eggerman, a farmer from Watson, Sask., had 6,000 acres of canola and wheat lying in swaths that were scattered by the wind.
“I’ve never in my life seen wheat swaths blow. We’ve got wheat swaths that were north and south and it just blew that straw like snow.”
Some of his canola blew into a neighbour’s ditch on the other side of the grid road.
“It’s very stressful when you put a lot of time and money and work and dreamt about this crop and were days away,” he said.
“Like, the combines are in the fields. You’re that close and Mother Nature has got to mess it up. That’s stress.”
He figures he lost 10 percent of his crops and is now forced to run his combines over the entire field to pick up the stray crop, which will extend harvest.
“Our (combines) burn 20 gallons an hour of fuel. Well, you better get some grain or it’s going to cost you more than you get back,” he said.
Laura Reiter, who farms near Radisson, Sask., said the weather station on her farm measured gusts of up to 90 km/h. However, they fared pretty well because most of their swaths ran east and west.
She has heard other farmers talk about swaths that rolled up into bales the size of a pick-up trucks.
“Once in a while, you get a storm that blows through and ruffles things up but never one that blows for days,” said Reiter.
She feels for farmers who witnessed their profits blow away in the wind.
“When you’ve watched it grow all season and you’re just days from getting it in the combine, it’s pretty disheartening.”
Bellamy said her heart sank when she saw the weigh wagon results from their first canola field harvested after the storm.
“It was very depressing when I did the math,” she said.
“Let’s just put it this way, it takes a long time to fill a hopper now.”
The operation employs a big crew to help run the six combines they use at harvest.
“They can hardly stand it. They can’t stand to see all that canola lost because they knew what was there before,” said Bellamy.
The extent of the damage won’t be known until harvest wraps up.
“How much (canola) will I have? I don’t know. But I’ll be thankful for every bit that I do get, I can tell you that, with the price as it is.”
Grant McLean, cropping management specialist with Sask. Agriculture, said the suffering likely won’t end with harvest. The damage will trickle over to next spring, when herbicide tolerant volunteer canola appears in fields throughout the Prairies.