Making 8

In 2004, soybeans were a trivial crop in Western Canada. Acreage was tiny and contained to Manitoba’s Red River Valley. Nowadays, soybeans are the “it” crop in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan. Acreage has topped 1.5 million and still growing. The crop science industry is hoping to pull the same trick with grain corn, but producers remain skeptical. In this report, The Western Producer’s Robert Arnason examines a question that many are asking: will Western Canada soon have eight million acres of corn?

A corporate news release usually has a shelf life of about 72 hours. A company might announce a $10 billion merger or respond to a controversy, but after a few days the media and the public move on to other stories.

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A Monsanto Canada news release from June 24, 2013, is an exception. Two and a half years later, western Canadian farmers are still eager to talk about it.

Monsanto said it would invest $100 million to develop early maturing corn hybrids for the Canadian Prairies. The company set a goal of eight to 10 million acres of corn by 2025, a dramatic increase from 300,000 to 500,000 acres.

Monsanto isn’t the only firm with corn ambitions in Western Canada. DuPont has committed $35 million to develop corn hybrids and soybean varieties for the Prairies.

“It’s more than just Monsanto and DuPont,” said Myron Krahn, Manitoba Corn Growers Association president who farms near Carman.

“Pretty much all the corn genetic companies … they are all (targeting) Western Canada.”

Western Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are logical targets for crop biotech and seed companies because corn acres are approaching a plateau in most regions of North America. The corn industry captured an additional 3.4 million acres in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota from 2005-14, but acreage in Western Canada increased by only 150,000.

Sam Eathington, Monsanto vice-president of global plant breeding, said in 2013 that the company was pursuing corn hybrids with 70-day relative maturity.

He said the early maturing varieties were expected to generate yields of 110 to 120 bushels per acre, making grain corn economically viable on the Prairies.

Krahn said millions of acres are possible, but it will take much longer than a decade.

“The timeline for this is very, very aggressive,” he said.

“I’m a corn lover … so I’m in favour of this type of expansion, but I have tempered expectations on the timeline.”

Doug Robertson, who farms near Carstairs, Alta., discussed corn expansion over coffee at a farm meeting this winter. Grain industry representatives took the pro side of the discussion, while Robertson took the con.

“I got called a bit of a Luddite for not accepting this was going to happen,” said Robertson, president of the Western Barley Growers Association.

Robertson and other growers remain skeptical for a variety of reasons:

  • Except for the Red River Valley, most areas do not receive sufficient rainfall for corn.
  • Corn requires a substantial investment in farm equipment and storage.
  • Nobody wants to harvest in November.
  • Moving all that corn would put a strain on the rail and grain transportation system, which can barely handle existing volumes of grain.
  • Western Canada can’t compete with Brazil and Argentina on cost of production or exports, so why bother?
  • Corn would steal acres from oats, barley and wheat, in which Canada has a quality advantage.

To achieve eight to 10 million acres, corn would have to stretch west from the Red River Valley into much of southern Saskatchewan.

According to Saskatchewan Agriculture, corn needs 500 millimetres of annual precipitation to achieve optimal yield potential.

However, Regina received an average of only 320 mm of rainfall a year from 1991 to 2005.

In most years, snowfall adds 100 mm to Regina’s annual precipitation, but some of that is lost to runoff and probably isn’t in the soil when corn needs it.

Corn requires more water later in the growing season, particularly between tasseling and grain fill, when it can consume seven mm per day.

Chuck Fossay, who farms near Starbuck, Man., said corn would have struggled on the Prairies last year. Parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta received no rain from seeding until late July.

Robertson said the risk of a dry or cool year is a deal breaker for corn.

“As a farmer, I’m looking for something that does well year after year,” he said.

“Where does (corn) do the best? In the parts of the States where they’ve got lots of water and heat…. There’s a reason corn grows where it grows.”

New corn genetics could compensate for the lack of moisture as plant breeders develop corn hybrids with superior water efficiency and drought tolerance.

“That’s going to help with that problem,” Krahn said.

“That (rain) won’t be the limiting factor, necessarily.”

There is also the matter of climate change because historical weather patterns may soon be meaningless. The prairie climate could become warmer, wetter and better suited for corn.

“There’s no doubt that … weather and climate change are going to dictate a lot of (these) things,” said Bill Gehl, chair of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission.

Soybeans have boomed over the last decade in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan, jumping from 100,000 acres in 2005 to 1.5 million in 2014. A dramatic increase in a non-traditional crop is possible, but soybeans are easier to grow than corn:

  • Soybeans fix nitrogen, while corn requires an immense amount of nitrogen.
  • Corn is harvested in October or November, while soybeans are harvested in late September or early October.
  • Corn would probably require an investment in a planter, corn header, additional grain bins and a grain dryer.

“There’s a whole range of problems and equipment you’re going to have to address to get into corn,” Robertson said.

“You’re not just going to decide, ‘oh, I’m going to grow corn.’ ”

It’s not unusual to see corn standing in Manitoba fields in November because the crop isn’t sufficiently dry to combine.

Few growers enjoy harvesting in the snow and cold so the financial return better be worth the hassle.

“You would have to sell this to the grower. Why would you want to be out there in October and November … to make the same amount of money you could (harvesting) at the end of August?” Krahn said.

“That’s a question even guys in (Manitoba’s) corn belt ask themselves.”

The corn complications don’t stop once harvest is complete.

A record crop of 75 million tonnes overwhelmed the prairie grain handling system in 2013, clogging up country elevators, railway lines and port terminals.

If prairie farmers grew five million acres of corn instead of wheat, it would increase western Canadian grain production by seven million tonnes. To put that in perspective, all of Saskatchewan grew 8.2 million tonnes of spring wheat last year.

If canola yields creep up to 50 bushels per acre and if prairie growers do latch onto corn, 75 million tonnes may soon become a puny crop.

“If we’re going to start growing corn that’s going to yield two or three times more than what that land would of grown previously, you better start planning for that,” Gehl said.

“We need the grain handling capacity, we need the transportation, we need the port capacity and we need the customers.”

For decades, the Canadian Wheat Board promoted prairie wheat as the best in the world. Many commodity groups have built upon that strategy, touting the quality and health attributes of prairie grain and oilseeds.

“If you think of anything in western Canadian agriculture … it’s (about) quality,” said Wilf Keller, president of Ag West Bio, Saskatchewan’s bio-science industry association.

“Our malting barley, our wheat, our canola, that (quality) is the play. Does corn and soybean fit into that? I would (say) there’s a question mark, particularly with corn.”

Corn production is more about quantity, and Robertson isn’t convinced that prairie growers will benefit from the higher yields.

“What is corn going to supply that we’re not already getting?” he said.

“It’s going to supply a few more bushels but at a cost. It’s not a cheap crop to grow.”

If Western Canada had 10 million acres of corn, a substantial portion would be exported. Brazil and Argentina likely have a lower cost of production and their agricultural land is closer to the ocean, so it’s unclear how Canada could compete globally on price.

Gehl said the export obstacle can be overcome because Canadian farmers are used to fighting for market share.

“On the canola side, we compete against palm oil. On the wheat side, we’re competing with Argentina and the Black Sea and the United States and Europe.”

Producers may be skeptical about the agronomics and economics of corn, but the crop could inject billions into western Canadian agriculture.

Canada imported $6 billion worth of corn and corn related products from the United States from January 2010 to November 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, averaging out to $182 million worth of corn, $140 million of dried distiller grains and $677 million in ethanol a year. Canada is the number one export destination for U.S. ethanol production.

Prairie ethanol production would likely displace those imports if corn acres expanded into the millions.

A boom in corn acres would also increase domestic supplies of feed grain, which may encourage more livestock feeding on the Prairies.

In addition, the research investment into corn varieties suitable for Western Canada could provide a boost for spring wheat, oats, barley and canola.

“There could be a technology or innovation transfer that we could benefit from,” Keller said.

“You could learn from that (innovation) and adapt that technology to other crops.”

If and when corn gains a foothold in Western Canada is still up for debate, but farmers and experts agree on one thing: corn’s future is not a decision for government or industry strategists.

Individual producers will decide corn’s fate.

“If they make more money per unit of land, they will grow it,” Keller said.

“No farmer is going to grow something that is cost negative or cost neutral.

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