Erratic delivery challenges eastern milling operations

Short on supplies | Eastern Canadian flour production stressed

Flour mills in Eastern Canada are running critically low on supplies of high quality milling wheat that is normally moved by rail from Western Canada.


Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian National Millers Association, said March 20 that some mills have intermittently suspended operations until inventories can be replenished.


“Inventories at some mills are desperately low, practically empty,” said Harrison. “There are a number of mills in Eastern Canada … that have been very challenged in trying to maintain their shipments of flour and other milled grain products to further processors.”


Harrison called the shortage of western milling wheat a “difficult and unprecedented situation,” adding inventories have not improved since Ottawa imposed new measures three weeks ago that required railways to move more western Canadian grain to market.


The movement of rail cars carrying western Canadian milling wheat to mills in Ontario and Quebec has been erratic and unpredictable, Harrison said.


To make matters worse, volumes of western Canadian wheat shipped through Thunder Bay last year were lower than normal, resulting in reduced lake traffic to eastern Canadian mills.


Grain industry sources said last week that some mills in Ontario and Quebec were importing milling wheat from offshore.


However, Harrison said it is highly unlikely Canadian mills would substitute foreign wheat for higher-quality western Canadian grain and run the risk of offering a sub-standard product to bakers and processors.


“I think it’s highly unlikely,” he said.


“The mills that rely on western Canadian wheat have lines of product that they make using specifically western Canadian wheat, so for end-use characteristics reasons, I can’t see them readily substituting.”


He said most wheat flour milled in Eastern Canada goes to large further processors, particularly bakeries.


“Those bakeries are operating very large-scale, continuous production units so they have no room for any error in their end-use performance.”


Federal transport minister Lisa Raitt announced measures two weeks ago to ensure that more western Canadian grain is moved by rail on a weekly basis.


Beginning April 5, Canada’s major railway companies will be required to move a combined million tonnes of grain per week from Western Canada to unload positions in Canada or elsewhere in North America.


Movements of western Canadian grain to Ontario, Quebec and the United States have been severely restricted this year.


U.S. wheat mills are also coping with low inventories, and oat millers north and south of the border have been running at less than capacity.


Canadian mills normally grind three million tonnes of wheat per year.


Seventy-five percent of the wheat milled each year is Canada Western Red Spring and amber durum from Western Canada.


Western Canadian mills can buy wheat locally and truck it over relatively short distances, but eastern mills usually receive prairie grain by rail or lake-sized vessels from Thunder Bay.


Some millers and shippers would like to see ice breakers used to open up shipping lanes on the Great Lakes and ensure the timely flow of grain from Thunder Bay into lake ports and the St. Lawrence.