No chance of repeating record grain movement and exports

Grain shipments through Thunder Bay were down about seven percent last season.  |  Michael Raine photo

It was a banner crop year for Western Canada’s grain movement and exports in 2020-21 with several records broken.

Alas, there will be no records set in 2021-22 because drought in much of the Prairies is slashing yields.

While we will have to wait for Statistics Canada’s July report for the official tally of all grain exported in the crop year that ended July 31, the last Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Statistics Weekly report of the year gives a good initial tally.

It says producer deliveries of 15 major grains, pulses and special crops totalled almost 64.1 million tonnes and total exports were slightly more than 50.9 million tonnes.

Deliveries were 1.6 percent more than the previous year and exports were 14.7 percent more.

Of course, to have all this grain moved the two national railways also had to have record years.

Canadian National says it moved more than 31 million tonnes of bulk grain and grain products, topping the previous record of 29.4 million tonnes set in 2019-20. It also moved 1.1 million tonnes from Western Canada in containers.

Canadian Pacific says it moved 30.62 million tonnes of bulk grain and products and a further 590,000 tonnes in containers, for a total of 31.21 million tonnes, up 3.4 percent from last year’s record.

Both companies have invested heavily in new, larger hopper cars and engines and have been running longer grain trains.

For example, CP can now run what it calls high efficiency product trains that are 8,500 feet long and can carry 40 percent more grain than a more traditional 7,000 foot train.

Elevator companies are investing in track infrastructure to accommodate these larger trains. CP says that by the end of this year, 40 percent of grain loaders on its tracks will be able to accommodate high efficiency product trains.

The record exports this year were also made possible by new grain terminal infrastructure at the West Coast.

G3 Terminal Vancouver opened its state of the art facility in July last year. Its loop track can handle 150 car trains, its storage capacity is 180,000 tonnes and each of its three ship loaders can move 6,500 tonnes per hour.

And nearby on the Fraser River, Parrish and Heimbecker and Grains Connect Canada have mostly completed construction on their new terminal, capable of exporting four million tonnes a year and storing up to 70,000 tonnes.

An official opening has not yet been held, but the facility has been handling grain for several months.

Vancouver terminals did the heavy lifting this year with movement through those facilities up about 27 percent. Prince Rupert saw its handling drop by about six percent and, to the east, Thunder Bay handlings were down about seven percent.

Of the crops exported, barley and durum had outstanding years.

The CGC says 6.06 million tonnes of durum were shipped out of the country, topping the previous record of 5.27 million tonnes set in 2019-20 by 15 percent.

The tally advanced thanks to big year-over-year increases in shipments to Italy and Algeria.

Barley exports totalled 3.71 million tonnes, shattering the previous year’s total by 69 percent and topping the 3.44 million tonnes exported in 1996-97.

The huge increase in barley exports was due to a massive amount, more than 3.5 million tonnes, going to China, more than double the quantity it took the year before.

Exports of wheat other than durum also appear to have set a record at 19.63 million tonnes, an increase of almost nine percent over last year. It nosed out the previous record of 19.53 million tonnes set in 2018-19.

China was also the largest buyer of wheat.

At the end of June, with one month left in the crop year, China had imported 2.86 million tonnes of Canadian wheat, about twice as much as the year before.

Canola exports at 10.58 million tonnes were large, but shy of the record of 10.78 million tonnes set in 2017-18.

Again, looking at exports to the end of June, China was the largest canola buyer at 2.56 million tonnes, up from 1.73 million at the same point in 2019-20.

Farmers will likely take cold comfort in the records set last year. Growers are starting to cut a severely reduced crop and livestock producers are starting to cull herds and are sweating over how they will afford feed for the animals they can keep.

Indeed, the severe feed shortage will necessitate the movement of hay and importation of feed grain, most likely American corn.

In the drought year of 2002-03 Canada imported 4.12 million tonnes of corn and 258,900 tonnes of barley.

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