Winter wheat acres should double or triple: expert

AgCanada scientist says winter wheat acres could hit the 
five-million mark, if crop insurance rules allowed later seeding

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If spring comes late or is wet seven months from now, growers waiting to plant spring wheat will be looking with envy at neighbours’ fields of winter wheat.

But there should be less envy and more winter wheat than the one million to 1.5 million acres currently grown on the Prairies, says Brian Beres, a scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“I think we should easily plant as many acres of winter wheat as durum — somewhere in the three-million- to five-million-acre range,” said Beres.

“If you think about the bottlenecks to the adoption of winter wheat, there’s the agronomic side and the policy side. We can do and we have done a lot on the research side to develop an updated agronomic system that helps farmers reach attainable yield and quality goals.

“But running parallel to that is always a policy that will either enable or limit potential. One of the red flags that comes up that we’ve talked about addressing is the arbitrary insurance cutoff date, which is dissuading a lot of producers from considering winter wheat.”

South of the Bow River, Alberta Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) insures fall rye, winter triticale, and winter wheat so long as it is seeded by Sept. 30. North of the Bow, the cutoff dates are Sept. 15 for winter triticale and fall rye, and Sept. 20 for winter wheat.

While those dates are two to three weeks after Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development’s seeding recommendations (which are intended to allow the crops time enough to germinate and develop at least three leaves), Beres would like to see them extended further.

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To prove what has been consistently seen in test and commercial fields planted with modern agronomics, Beres and University of Manitoba researchers are in year two of a Prairie-wide study of seeding dates in winter wheat. This study is expected to confirm that — contrary to long-held beliefs — fall emergence is not necessary for a successful spring crop. That’s because of newer, more winter-hardy cultivars, better dual-action seed treatments, and improved research into optimal density.

“From the research I’ve published, and my experiences where we’ve conducted other studies across the Prairies, planting later, especially in southern parts of the Prairies, is really not the detrimental issue that it’s deemed to be,” said Beres. “We can seed into October around Lethbridge without any ultimate difference — no measurable reduction in crop yields, just a later harvest date as maturity is delayed.”

AFSC has proven its flexibility on seeding dates before, extending the insurance cutoff dates by a week or 10 days on multiple spring-seeded crops when spring conditions are particularly cool or wet. And the corporation is open to considering updating their offerings if such a change is both an acceptable level of risk and in the best interests of all farmers, said Nancy Smith, co-ordinator of operations for the delivery of insurance program.

That has happened before. For example, in both 2005 and 2006, it extended its winter wheat seeding cutoff to Sept. 30 (from Sept. 15) in southern Alberta before making that change permanent in 2007.

“AFSC looks at changes to insurance programs based on industry group feedback, proven genetics and best management practices,” said Smith. “Our research department is the area that does this work, and along with input from business (operations), makes recommendations for changes and enhancements.

“If there is a variety of wheat that can be seeded in October and handle winter’s harshness, we would certainly be responsive if we felt it was within our risk tolerance.”

Potential changes are carefully considered to ensure there is a consistent application of policy and procedures, she added.

“I have to look at what I can do for you that will help you but not negatively impact the guy over there. How can I balance what I give you with what I give him?”

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