Could earlier fall seeding boost winter wheat?

Winter wheat production in Saskatchewan appears to have stabilized, but acreage is still well below historical levels.

Officials with the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission say 260,000 aces of winter wheat were planted last fall.

That is on par with 2014 but well below 2013 levels, when Saskatchewan wheat growers planted more than 600,000 acres.

Jake Davidson, executive director of the commission, said weather problems last fall delayed harvest operations and interfered with plans to plant winter cereals.

“We’re holding our own,” said Davidson.

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“Winter cereal acreage is holding steady, but it’s not where we want it to be. Our peak is in the 660,000 range, but we haven’t been able to get there in the last couple of years because of the weather. Mother Nature controls us to a greater extent than any of the spring crops.”

Declining acreage was a topic of discussion during the commission’s annual meeting that kicked off Crop Production Week in Saskatoon Jan. 11.

Lower than expected acreage during the past two years has affected the commission’s check-off revenues, but careful financial planning has allowed it to maintain its funding obligations and continue research aimed at boosting production.

“Definitely the lower acreage has trimmed our checkoff and it has hurt us a bit i n the short-term,” said commission chair Dale Hicks.

“But we typically don’t fund any research projects until the money’s in the bank, so we’re still in decent shape for the next few years.”

The winter wheat industry has also seen an increase in the amount of canola being straight harvested in Saskatchewan, which could hurt winter cereal acreage.

Straight harvested canola is generally taken off later in the year, which means there is less time and fewer harvested acres available for planting winter cereals.

Research efforts are now focused on pushing back the fall seeding deadlines for winter cereals.

Most winter cereals grown in Western Canada are planted in mid-to late September but SWCDC officials hope the planting window can be expanded, which could translate into more acres and more consistent supplies of winter wheat.

The quality of winter wheat grown in Western Canada is excellent, but consistency of supply has been an ongoing challenge that limits sales opportunities in many key markets.

Hicks said he would like to see Saskatchewan’s winter cereal acreage return to 500,000 aces a year or more and remain there consistently.

That goal might be achieved if fusarium continues to spread into traditional durum growing areas,  he added.

“I predicted a few years ago that as fusarium becomes more widespread, guys are going to have to go to spring wheats or winter wheats,” he said.

“They’re going to have to grow something other than durum, and I think we’re finally getting to that point. I think winter wheat is a very viable crop to take over some of those durum aces in southern Saskatchewan, so I think we’ll see durum acres slowing down a bit, and winter wheat picking up some acres in those tradition durum growing areas.”

Hicks said the earlier maturity of winter wheat generally allows the crop to avoid significant fusarium damage.

The quality of last year’s harvest was generally good, despite widespread rain that affected harvest operations across the West.

“There was a little harvest window there that allowed us to get some decent quality off … considering it was a wet fall,” he said.

Davidson said the registration of fusarium resistant winter wheat varieties such as Emerson has increased the attractiveness of winter wheat in some areas.

As spring wheat prices decline, the economics of growing winter wheat generally look more attractive relative to spring wheat, Hicks added.

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