Each year, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development publishes a compilation of all 13 of the province’s irrigation districts’ data for the previous year.
The latest figures show cereals and forages (pasture, hay and silage crops) still account for two-thirds of the 1,390,000 acres in the districts, but the trend is clear — forage production isn’t what it used to be, and oilseeds and specialty crops are on the rise.
“In 2003, BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was discovered in Alberta, and since then we’ve seen the proportion of forage crops declining over time,” said Shelley Woods, a soil and water scientist with Alberta Agriculture’s Irrigation and Farm Water Division.
But some districts stray quite far from the provincial average.
For example, the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District is in an area of high feedlot density and forages account for 57 per cent of its irrigated acres, with cereals grown on 23 per cent of irrigated land and specialty crops on just three per cent.
But overall, acreage of specialty crops (dry beans, potatoes, sugar beets, and seed canola) is slowly, but steadily growing and in recent years (2014 figures haven’t been compiled yet) have regained their lead over oilseeds (canola and flax, but also safflower and mustard).
Specialty crops can be challenging as they require a great deal of expertise to grow successfully, have higher input costs, and frequently need special equipment for seeding and harvesting. But growers who get it right are often rewarded with the highest profits.
In the Taber Irrigation District, specialty crops account for 37 per cent of production thanks to the region’s potato- and sugar-processing plants. Its two potato-processing plants opened in 1999 and 2000, fuelling a doubling of potato acreage.
Likewise, sugar beet production is driven by processor demand.
“We can’t reach an unlimited amount of sugar beet acres because it’s grown under a contract determined by the processor and how much they want to purchase each year,” noted Woods.
One of the drivers across all irrigation districts is new varieties.
Both silage and grain corn have been on the increase since about 2007, mainly because of new varieties that are better suited to shorter Prairie summers. And as silage corn rises, barley silage has decreased.
“Corn can produce about 50 per cent more silage than barley on the same land base,” said Woods. “With the opening of the DuDont Pioneer corn research facility between Lethbridge and Coaldale, we will likely see greater increases in corn acres, for both silage and grain.”
The stars have also lined up for faba beans, which have jumped from 1,400 acres in 2006 to more than 3,700 in 2013.
Fabas produce well under irrigation, there’s been good market demand, and their nitrogen-fixing ability is prized.
“We’ve had faba beans on irrigation for about eight years already, and had very good results with them,” said Richard Stamp, a pedigree seed grower near Enchant. “We needed to put a pulse crop back into our rotation.”
Stamp turned to fabas after trying dry beans for a few years, which did not do well in their area.
“They (fabas) grow very well under irrigation,” he said “They can tolerate a lot more water and respond well to moisture. So when you irrigate them later in the season you get a greater yield out of them.”
Stamp has found them to be one of the lower-risk crops he grows, which adds to the incentive to grow them.
In addition to acreage figures, the Alberta Irrigation Information Booklet has a host of other data, including what type of irrigation equipment is being used, weather patterns, and water usage. However, the data is just for the 13 irrigation districts. There are an additional 310,255 acres of private irrigation not covered by this survey.
The booklet can be downloaded at agric.gov.ab.ca or obtained by calling 310-FARM.