Looking beyond soybeans and corn for profits

Colour me skeptical, but I don’t see soybeans and grain corn hitting the aggressive targets set by the big seed companies. 


Their investment in earlier maturing varieties is appreciated, but will there be sufficient economic incentive to propel acres dramatically higher? 


Monsanto Canada is predicting eight to 10 million acres of corn and six to eight million acres of soybeans in Western Canada by 2024. 


We’ve certainly seen huge changes in the past decade, and there’s certainly a lot of interest in soybeans and to a lesser extent corn, but the current acreage is not large.


Soybeans have become an important crop in Manitoba, with Statistics Canada predicting 1.3 million acres this year, an increase of 24 percent from last year. It’s the third largest crop in the province, and some believe it will soon overtake canola.


However, even though soybean acreage is expected to jump by 76 percent in Saskatchewan, it will still only be 300,000 acres, similar to some specialty crops. 


Grain corn in Manitoba is projected to be down 24 percent to just 300,000 acres. Corn is going to be down everywhere, and Manitoba isn’t bucking the trend.


Grain corn in Saskatchewan and Alberta doesn’t warrant a Statistics Canada projection. There’s no soybean number for Alberta. 


Neil Arbuckle of Monsanto says the experience in North Dakota is that corn displaces wheat when corn reaches the 110 bushel per acre threshold. Farmers will certainly gravitate to whatever provides the best returns, but Western Canada has a wide diversity of cropping options, particularly in the southern and central grain belt.


For some, there seems to be a certain allure to growing the big two crops from south of the border, but do we really want to compete head to head with the Americans?


We grow crops they have all but abandoned such as oats and flax, and we are leaders in crops they have been slow to adopt, such as lentils and field peas. 


Saskatchewan’s flax acreage is set for a big rebound, with Statistics Canada calling for a 72 percent in-crease to 1.48 million acres. 


Sizable increases are also expected in Manitoba and Alberta, but the acreage in those provinces is small. Manitoba once had more than a million acres of flax, but the projection is just 120,000 this year.


Field peas are expected to be up by 25 percent in Alberta to 1.255 million acres and up by 20 percent in Saskatchewan to 2.66 million acres. 


Saskatchewan is the king of lentils: 2.8 million acres are expected this year, which is an increase of 21 percent. It’s interesting how some crops virtually stop at provincial boundaries, with lentils being the prime example. 


Manitoba used to be a significant grower of small green lentils, but the crop has all but disappeared. Many parts of southern Alberta should be viable for lentils, but the acreage there remains insignificant.


While corn and/or soybeans are no doubt poised to increase in the years ahead, we shouldn’t disregard other options.


The major seed companies will eagerly promote their new corn and soybean varieties and spend money to aid in their adoption. 


However, there are many crops we already grow that can be profitable in a broader geography. 


There are new cropping options such as fababeans and old cropping options such as rye and triticale.


There’s no use being fixated on soybeans and corn.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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