Persistently dry conditions taking their toll

Colour me skeptical, but I don’t think the prairie crop will be as big as some think.

Like lots of people, I was fooled last year. The crop turned out much better than expected, but abundant subsoil moisture buffered the lack of rainfall experienced by many regions during the growing season. This year, not so much.

At the Ag in Motion farm show in mid-July, Bruce Burnett, the director of weather and markets for Glacier FarmMedia, which also owns The Western Producer, had just completed a 4,000 kilometre tour through Western Canada, and he was calling for a drop in overall crop yields, noting how short and dry the crop was in many areas.

About a week later, FarmLink Marketing Solutions had its inaugural crop tour of Western Canada, and the company’s senior market analyst, Neil Townsend, upped his yield estimates for most crops. While noting, as did Burnett, that crop conditions are highly variable, Townsend’s yield estimates are higher than last year and higher than the five-year average in most cases.

Interestingly, Burnett and Townsend used to be work colleagues back in the days of the Canadian Wheat Board. For my money, Burnett’s view of the crop is the more realistic of the two.

Travelling thousands of kilometres to look at crops is not a sure fire way to estimate overall potential unless you have a methodology and a history. Walking through crops and talking to local growers is a lot more useful than driving by on the highway with some random stops.

Precipitation and temperature maps are also valuable. For most of Western Canada, growing season precipitation has been below normal while temperatures have been higher.

Central and southern Alberta has been dry, and the latest provincial crop report predicts that the short crop in these areas will drag provincial average yields lower. Most notable is barley, which has been pegged at 57.6 bushels per acre versus last year’s 71.8.

The July 23 crop report from Saskatchewan Agriculture puts 35 percent of cropland as short and 12 percent as very short for moisture. While there are pockets of accumulated growing season precipitation as high as 380 millimetres, there are others with a scant 50 mm.

The latest crop report from Manitoba Agriculture also points to moisture stress and areas with inadequate rainfall.

In all three provinces, a below average hay crop is a common theme. This issue hasn’t received as much attention as warranted. Hay is going to be in short supply. Many cattle producers will tell you that they can’t afford the high cost to buy hay and have it trucked in.

History shows that hay yields can be short even while crop yields are above average. Many grain farmers are hoping that’s the case this year, and there are certainly areas where crops will be excellent.

While producers worry most about their own fields, the overall size of the prairie crop matters.

First of all, it affects market prices. For instance, an extra million tonnes of canola dramatically changes projected carryover levels.

It also matters when trying to anticipate rail transportation needs. Despite all the fancy tools available, we still don’t do a great job of forecasting how much grain the railways will be asked to move.

The guessing game will continue in the weeks and months ahead. Last year, yields were a pleasant surprise. That may not be the case this year.

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