Too early to lower yield hopes

Crop forecasts | Despite the late thaw in many areas there’s still time for crops to catch up

Spring thaw is late, but it’s way too soon to be lowering yield expectations, say crop experts.

“I’m not panicking,” said Elston Solberg, president of Agri-Trend Agrology Ltd.

“I wish everybody else would calm down.”

There is plenty of handwringing about lingering snow, the potential for flooding and delays getting into the fields, but Solberg sees a glass half-full scenario this spring be-cause of adequate soil moisture levels across the Prairies.

“On average, more water is better than less water in a dryland situation. There’s going to be more winners than losers,” he said.

Solberg said there are things growers can do to speed up the development of their crops if they are worried about them coming up short of the fall finish line.

“I think we’re going to be fine,” he said.

Chris Beckman, oilseed analyst with Agriculture Canada’s Market Analysis Group, recalls one year when the majority of the crop was seeded in the first week of June and everything turned out OK.

“We can be in the field a little later than normal and still pull off a normal yield,” he said.

Some of last year’s best canola crops were planted in Alberta in June. They avoided the aster yellows disease plague that reduced yields in early-seeded canola.

Beckman agreed with Solberg that soil moisture is sufficient for good seed germination in most regions, supporting the probability of producing above average yields.

Moisture maps show farmers across most of the Prairies received 115 to 200 percent of normal precipitation between Nov. 1, 2012, and March 31, 2013.

The benefits of good soil moisture could be partially offset by the yield-robbing effects of a cooler-than-normal spring, but it’s far too early to become overly focused on either of those factors, said Beckman.

“If we get a couple of good, timely rains, that could do more for a crop than what the snow cover or moisture conditions are in the spring,” he said.

That’s why Beckman is sticking with trend line yields and likely won’t be adjusting them until the picture becomes clearer in late-July or August.

Even then it can be too soon to tinker with yield estimates. He harkens back to 2009, a year when crop development was well behind normal for much of the summer because of cool conditions.

It appeared certain that farmers were in store for a disappointing crop, until the sun finally emerged late in the growing season and gave the crop a second life.

“We grew the crop in September and harvested it in November and ended up with some kind of half decent yield,” he said.

It was actually far better than half decent, according to Saskatchewan Agriculture’s final crop report for 2009. Yields exceeded the 10-year average and quality was deemed average to above average.

Despite the encouraging words from experts, farmers remain anxious about what is shaping up to be a two to three week delay getting into their fields in some regions of the Prairies.

Arlynn Kurtz, a grower from Stockholm, Sask., said his fields were still covered with snow as of late last week. To catch up, he needs a steady string of nights without frost, daytime temperatures of 15 to 20 C, gentle winds and no rain.

He is not optimistic about yield prospects if the crop goes in the ground after the May long weekend, which is how spring appears to be unfolding. Kurtz fears those plants would be too delicate to withstand a July heat wave.

“There is a chance of maybe an average crop this year, but as far as a bumper crop, those chances are greatly reduced,” said Kurtz, who is vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

Kurtz is particularly nervous about the potential for May rain further disrupting seeding.

“I think every farmer out there right now will tell you that once it melts, we don’t need any rain for three or four weeks.”

Beckman acknowledged there is already strong potential for flooding in the Red River Valley, which could further delay seeding in that important growing region of Manitoba.

However, the prairie grain belt covers a huge area and reduced yields in one region are often offset by bumper crops in another.

Solberg said farmers are always antsy come spring: they’re convinced they’re either going to be dried out or drowned out. He believes the trend toward bigger operations has heightened the anxiety.

“Guys have taken on more and more land and so panic comes from the fact that they have more ground to cover in the same amount of days,” he said.

Beckman said many farmers have been spoiled by an early start to seeding over the past couple of years, which is exacerbating their anxiety about this year’s painfully slow spring thaw. However, one thing is working in their favour.

“If you get a good seeding window, like one or two weeks, we have the equipment out there now where we can cover a lot of ground in a huge hurry and get the crop in,” he said.

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