This year’s harvest was the season from hell for farmers across Alberta.
Many will still be combining next spring, drying grain for weeks to come, and their marketing efforts will resemble a salvage operation.
And while producers — particularly in central and northern regions — knew their crops were late in developing, Mother Nature did not co-operate when they were ready to harvest.
“This is the third or fourth year we saw a lot of moisture heading into harvest and snow way earlier than we expected caused lodging,” said Jeremy Boychyn, agronomy research and extension specialist with Alberta Barley and Alberta Wheat.
“It’s been moisture event after moisture event, especially in that central-northwestern part of the province which means that they were only getting two to three hours of harvest in a day before they had to stop and wait for another day or so to get back in.”
“The theme of harvest 2019 was ‘stop and go,’” added Brennan Turner, CEO of FarmLead, an online grain-marketing service.
As of Nov. 5, 88 per cent of the province’s major crops (spring wheat, barley, canola, oats and peas) were combined, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry estimated.
But that number doesn’t tell the tale. In the south, the harvest was 97.2 per cent complete, but yields were down by nearly a fifth — an average of 35.1 bushels per acre for spring wheat, 32.2 bu./ac. for canola, and 44.6 bu./ac. for barley.
It was the opposite story in the Peace — yields were slightly above the five-year average but more than one-third of crops had not been harvested.
And many crops were coming in wet or tough.
“Canola is the biggest challenge in terms of crop that is still out there in swaths that hasn’t been drying down to where you can put it in a dryer or a bin,” Boychyn said earlier this month.
The south was not as impacted as the north and the central-west. Some producers were delayed, and then got snowed on.
“It’s a battle,” said Turner, who farms in east-central Saskatchewan.
Producers would start combining, and then there would be a weather event, and they would have to wait for the land to dry off, and then they would go and then it would rain again. This phenomenon happened all over the Canadian Prairies and parts of Ontario, and even in the U.S. northern plains, said Turner.
That stop and go was reflected in the markets.
“From a grain-marketing perspective, it’s the same thing,” he said. “What you have planned for a field or bin that you have taken off is going to be different from another field or bin, so you are basically targeting different markets with it. You stop marketing for milling wheat and then you have to start marketing for feed wheat.”
In many areas, such as near Edmonton, wet conditions delayed the start of harvest and kept producers from completing the job.
“There are hundreds of thousands of dollars (of crops) not harvested,” said Turner. “A lot of fields will be going to crop insurance.
“It’s very frustrating to think about, let alone have to deal with.”
On his Saskatchewan farm, Turner said he has thousands of acres of flax and canola that will be under snow this winter.
“Most of the crop that is still in the fields now will be downgraded and go into the feed market. The amount of crop that is coming into the market that can only be sold for feed is putting pressure on prices. Alberta feed wheat prices are down about 10 per cent year after year.”
Feed grain prices fell by about 15 per cent from early August to early November. Durum saw some spikes that drew in grain, but that would quickly send prices back down again. Spring wheat didn’t even produce those short-lived opportunities, said Turner.
“For hard red spring prices, I’m surprised the rally hasn’t a further step,” he said. “Specifically in relation to the futures market, traders are less bullish because they know there’s still a lot of wheat out there. Maybe not as much high-protein wheat, but they think about blending capabilities.”
There is a lot of wheat available around the world, although Argentina’s crop and Australia’s crop both continue to get downgraded.
“That’s a positive thing looking forward,” said Turner.
The harvest lows in the market were seen mostly in October, because more of the harvest happened in that month as opposed to September.
One positive is that the livestock pressures are not that bad.
“With higher price points for meat, that trickles down and a higher price could be paid for feed stocks,” said Turner.
Barley prices were also starting to pick up a little and some of the feed barley that would normally go to Red Deer or Lethbridge will likely go to the coast instead, he added.
“That’s a positive demand indicator as well,” he said.
The amount of canola left in the field is almost irrelevant, he said.
“What has been harvested will satisfy the needs of the market for the foreseeable future,” said Turner, noting demand is limited. “Even if more canola is going to the EU, it doesn’t make up for all the demand that China usually brings to the table.
“The market is saying relative to what is produced or what will come off this spring is going to be able to meet the demand, with the assumption that you’re not going to see a lot of reduction again in canola acres.”
Although weather was the story of this year’s harvest, it’s still worthwhile to do a retrospective and consider what might have been done differently, said Turner.
“It’s not always the easiest thing to think about but it’s worth (it), whether it is talking about it with your business partner, or writing it out and thinking about it yourself,” he said.
This can help create a plan for next year.
Salvaging the season
Boychyn said there are some issues with quality when it comes to spring wheat.
“We’re hearing issues with falling numbers and some elevators are just seeing a lot of poor-quality wheat — in terms of the falling number — come in,” said Boychyn.
Producers can take crop samples to multiple elevators to get multiple tests to help them determine how to best market those crops, he added.
The immediate task is to check bins frequently, he said.
“We know that stuff is going in there tough,” he said. “Hopefully you have some type of electronic information coming from the bin to keep you updated about the heat and moisture in the bin so you can address it appropriately.”
Boychyn also recommends purchasing seed early for the spring, and looking into early-maturing varieties.
And those with unharvested acres will need a plan for what will be a challenging spring. It’s a good idea to set a priority plan based on value of the crops and accessibility of getting into the field, says Boychyn.
“Addressing which crop will lose the most value as it continues to sit out there in the spring is going to be important to set that priority,” said Boychyn. “Field work in the spring will be delayed and so will seeding.”
Harvesting in the spring means that there will be a lot of ruts to deal with, so producers will need to address those ruts and residue distribution issues. All that may delay seeding, so you need to plan for that, too.
“Having those shorter seeding varieties might help mitigate risk the following fall,” said Boychyn.
Finally, he recommends producers talk to area elevators to see what their options might be in spring.
“Knowing where that crop can go can potentially help them move forward,” he said.