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Plant 2017: It’s all about making the best of a bad situation

It was never going to be good, but crop specialists say this seeding season may not be as bad as feared

To say that last year’s harvest season in Alberta was unusual would be putting it mildly.

The exceptionally wet fall resulted in 967,569 unharvested acres reported to Agricultural Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) this past winter, representing millions of dollars in seed and inputs that have yet to be recouped.

So the big question this spring has been: What now?

The two most important things are to not make any rash decisions and double-check on crop insurance requirements, said Harry Brook, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“You don’t want to do something only to find your claim’s been denied because you did this, this or this,” he said. “You need to be very clear with crop insurance as to what you’re planning to do and find out if it will affect your coverage.”

Also, do not assume anything about the quality of your unharvested crops — they often come through winter surprisingly well.

“Don’t write it off,” said Brook. “Once you’ve got settled with crop insurance, I’d strongly recommend getting a representative sample and testing it.

“People have harvested in February during warm breaks and were surprised that the quality of the crop that was coming off was not garbage. It may be a No. 2.”

Reports of canola crushers not accepting spring-harvested canola are discouraging but, again, don’t give up hope, he said.

“In 2008 there was quite a bit of canola that went through the winter. Some of it went No. 1. It depends on the individual situation. It may not be all doom and gloom. Don’t just plow it under thinking, ‘Oh, it’s garbage.’ Or, God forbid, ‘burn it.’”

Buyers won’t refuse spring-harvested crops if the quality is good, he added.

“If it’s No. 1 canola, whether it’s seeded late or early it doesn’t matter to the buyer.”

Huge losses

The financial impact of last year’s incomplete harvest is coming into focus and it is significant. As of early March, AFSC had assessed 1,708 claims covering 616,412 unharvested acres and had issued $29,543,920 in payouts up to that point.

The costs of putting in a crop add up quickly. Provincial agriculture officials estimated the cost of putting in a feed barley crop in 2016 ranged from $176 to $233 per acre depending on the soil zone while canola production costs were pegged from $230 to $323 per acre.

The full financial picture, which also includes finding a home for a flood of poor-quality feed grain, won’t be known for months but it will be “weighing pretty heavy” on many producers, said Mark Cutts, a provincial crop specialist in Stettler.

“Most farmers have been saying they’ve either never had to deal with a situation like this or, if they have, it’s been nowhere near this scale,” he said. “Some producers have as high as two-thirds of their crop still out.”

Both he and Brook say only consider burning once all other options have been exhausted.

“If you can’t do anything else with it and you don’t want to plow it down, which at least recycles the nutrients, use burning as your very last-ditch effort,” Brook said. “It’s not something I would recommend because it’s so destructive to the organic matter. It’s such a waste.”

Late seeding

Late seeding will require producers to choose a late-season variety if possible, said Brook.

“All they can do is pick the shortest-season variety possible and accept the fact they’ve limited their yield potential,” he said. “Normally the rule of thumb is that if you seed it early you maximize yield, so seeding late you tend to give up some of the yield potential.

“The thing with later seeding, especially with canola or with the cereals, is the crop is maturing when there is declining daylight. It’s pushing the envelope.”

Not surprisingly, the success of late seeding largely comes down to the weather, said Brook. “You need to have a good summer with lots of heat and lots of light to push it along. Sometimes if it’s a drier-than-normal summer, which we haven’t had for a while, it would tend to speed up maturity. Otherwise it’s not quite mature in September when we start getting cold periods and frost. It’s going to be more susceptible to green seed in canola and in cereals because they’re not quite mature yet.”

However, late seeding has its advantages.

“You should be able to avoid any late-frost damage (in spring), so that’s a plus. The soil should be warmer so it should emerge fairly quickly.”

However, the risk of fusarium head blight is higher this year. Although this has not appeared to have affected producers’ ability to get non-infected seed for the growing season, that does not mean fusarium won’t be a potential risk as the growing season progresses, said Brook.

“When it comes to disease it’s all about weather,” he said. “If we continue on the way we have in the past few years with a lot of moisture and humidity, fusarium is going to continue to grow and become a bigger and bigger problem.

“The last few summers we’ve had significantly higher humidity than we normally do. If it decides to change this year that will probably have the biggest effect on fusarium and other diseases.”

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