Crop sector could have a tough year

I still find it discombobulating to go into hog and cattle meetings and find farmers in a cheery mood.

We’ve now had a couple of years of good profitability, and the rational side of my mind understands that reality. However, over the years I have grown accustomed to such a long patch of struggle and woe in both of those livestock industries that, without realizing it, whenever I’d walk into a hog or cattle meeting I’d be mentally prepared for a mournful and sometimes angry mood.

It was at crop farming meetings where I’d find the optimism.

It’s different today.

In December, I walked into a big hall at the Prairie Livestock Expo in Winnipeg filled with happy hog producers eagerly chatting with trade show exhibitors and each other about the many actions they’re taking to improve their farms.

Some are converting to gestation-stall-free systems to prepare for the demands of the future. Others are improving their manure handling and treatment systems to handle regulatory and environmental challenges.

Everybody is interested in maximizing feed efficiency and meat quality because they see the returns and the premiums of the future coming from those factors.

For once, simply surviving for one more day was not a dominant factor.

That makes for a relatively positive western Canadian farm sector at the beginning of 2015 because good times in livestock are existing beside mediocre times in crop farming.

However, we might see that change during the year as crop farmers slide into the dour mood that had gripped the cattle and hog industries since the early 2000s.

Margins are razor thin, and the entire grain industry is shifting toward lean — or worse — years ahead. If some of the forward price projections are right, growers aren’t going to make any real profits for an extended period, which will leave some exposed to significant risk. That will be a problem for anyone who is over-extended financially. If anyone gets a bad crop, they could slide into trouble.

That’s why I think grain farmers should start talking with their hog- and cattle-producing neighbours about what they did to survive the bad years.

Hog and cattle farmers who are still in the business obviously did something right in the bad years. They must have learned some serious lessons about how to manage a farm through times when there are little but risks, losses and pessimism.

Those are lessons they are probably willing to share and which will probably offer grain growers a head start on any retooling they need to do on their farms to come out the other side of this dark tunnel ready for the next era of profitability.

As I found at the Prairie Livestock Expo, optimism returns when profits return, and that’s refreshing. Crop growers might just need to hunker down and take advantage of the lessons their hog and cattle farming neighbours learned through recent awful experiences.

For some sights, sounds and thoughts about the rebounding confidence in the prairie hog industry, look at my blog on our website at www.producer.com, where I’ll have words, photos and video from the Prairie Livestock Expo.

ed.white@producer.com

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