Farmers work against clock

Prairie farmers will be looking to make up for lost time in late September and early October as the challenges of getting this year’s crop safely into the bin begin to mount.

Grain and oilseed growers across spent much of the past week drying themselves off and assessing the fallout following a widespread soaker that dropped as much as 100 millimetres of rain on some parts of the Prairies Sept. 9-12.

The rains were a further setback for growers whose crops were already two to three weeks behind normal development in many areas.

Precipitation amounts varied widely across the West but in some areas, muddy roads and waterlogged fields were expected to delay harvest progress by a week or more.

The rains are also expected to cause costly grade discounts on much of this year’s crop, with revenue losses potentially running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition to downgraded crops, harvest expenses will also increase, with slower progress expected in fields and unexpected grain-drying costs that could cost $20 per tonne or more.

As of late last week, grain and oilseed growers in Saskatchewan had just 18 percent of this year’s crop in the bin, according to Saskatchewan’s agriculture ministry.

That’s well behind last year at this time, when nearly 60 percent of the province’s crop was in the bin. Saskatchewan’s five-year average for this time of year (2014-18) is 43 percent complete.

“Before this four-day rain event, there was already some sprouting and downgrading going on,” said Cory Jacob, a crop extension specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture.

“With this large of a rain — we’re talking two, three, four inches — we’re expecting significant downgrading, sprouting, bleaching and staining on the crops.”

“Particularly on the cereal crops, whether they’re standing or in the swath, this is going to impact them significantly.”

The only potential silver lining — at least in the short term — is that the moisture could help slow-maturing canola crops to ripen more quickly.

In a Sept. 12 interview, Jacob said it’s difficult to accurately assess the financial impact of the four-day rain, but the costs will be huge.

With an estimated 25 million tonnes of non-durum wheat expected to be harvested in the West this year, and most of it still in the field, grade-related discounts on wheat alone could cost the farm economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It definitely depends on what the spread is when we look at our different grades — when we go from a No. 1 (CWRS) to a lower grade or even a feed grade — but it could definitely have quite a significant dollar impact on a producer’s bottom line,” Jacob said.

Prairie feed markets should be flush with off-grade malt barley.

“We’ll lose a lot of malting barley this year because of the weather,” Peter Watts, managing director of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, told MarketsFarm last week.

Canadian farmers seeded a huge barley crop this spring with total production pegged by Statistics Canada at 9.6 million tonnes.

That’s well above the five-year average of 8.1 million tonnes.

Watts said they will be lots of barley but quality will be “all over the map and it will be a struggle for grain companies and malting companies to find enough good quality malting barley.”

Harvest costs are also rising.

Some early harvested pulses and cereals that came off in late August or early September did not require drying.

But there’s a high likelihood that any non-oilseed crops that come off in the latter half of September will require drying, either on the farm or at commercial delivery points.

Custom drying costs vary depending on a variety of factors, most notably the amount of moisture being removed and the price of energy.

Minimum drying costs of 12 to 15 cents per bushel on wheat ($4.50 to $5.50 per tonne) would be a bargain, according to some sources.

“There’s going to be a lot of grain drying going on and it’s going to cost some money, whether you’re on propane or natural gas,” Jacob said.

“I don’t have any numbers, but it’s not a cheap cost,” he added

“If you’ve got feed wheat or durum and you’re drying it to bring it in, you’re not only getting a good-sized price discount for the grade loss but now you have to spend more money … to condition the grain, so yes, it definitely takes (a bite) out of the bottom line.”

Frost could also pose a threat for some growers.

According to growers in eastern Saskatchewan, as much as 15 to 20 percent of the crop‚ including cereals and canola, was still at risk of frost damage as of late last week.

In northern grain-growing areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta, that number was probably higher, above 25 percent by some estimates.

In northwestern Saskatchewan, grain producer Daryl Fransoo from Glaslyn said hardly a bushel of grain had been harvested in his area as of Sept. 13.

“I’d say we’re probably three weeks behind normal right now,” Fransoo told The Western Producer at the end of last week.

“All of the canola should be swathed by now and all the pulses should be off … but there’s been nothing going on.”

Fransoo, who has about 5,500 acres to take off this fall, said it’s unlikely combines will be rolling on his farm before Sept. 21 or Sept. 22.

That said, late harvests are not unusual in the Glaslyn area.

Last year, Fransoo didn’t harvest his first bushel of grain until Oct. 1. Almost all of his canola came off dry after mid-October, but every bushel of wheat went through a dryer.

Drying expenses for wheat alone took almost $130,000 off his farm’s bottom line last year.

“Up in the northwest here, we’re always late. It’s a bit of a different universe so we’re used to it, but it still gets pretty stressful when it’s this wet and there’s that much crop left out.”

“We dried every bushel of wheat last year … and I don’t expect we’ll get a dry bushel of wheat off this year.”

Fransoo said the harvest window is getting tight, but there’s still time, as long as Mother Nature co-operates.

Regardless of what the weather does, growers across the West have already taken a huge hit.

“I suspect all of the durum that’s left out (in southern Saskatchewan) is going to be feed … and the same goes for hard red,” he said.

“The hard red might hold a No. 3 but that’s still a lot of money out of farmers’ pockets because of a single weather event.”

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