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Winter wheat not feeling the love

The crop’s backers say there’s a host of reasons to grow the 
fall-seeded crops, but admit it’s been a struggle to convince farmers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The arguments are persuasive: Winter wheat typically requires less crop inputs than its spring-seeded counterparts, yet can yield 20 per cent more and is known to bring greater — sometimes significantly greater — financial returns.

The crop also reduces spring seeding time pressure, widens the fall harvest window, and offers environmental benefits.

Yet, winter wheat acreage continues to climb only slowly. While winter wheat varieties and agronomics have improved greatly in recent years and the crop now enjoys success all the way into the Peace region, growers continue to be slow to jump on the winter wheat bandwagon.

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After falling sharply at the start of the decade, Alberta’s winter wheat acreage has been on a fairly steady — albeit slow — upward trajectory, from 145,000 seeded acres in 2012 to 200,000 in 2016.

“Twenty-five or 30 per cent growth sounds good but on a smaller acreage, that growth doesn’t translate into a ton of acres,” said Monica Klaas, a contract agronomist with Ducks Unlimited Canada.

“The Western Winter Wheat Initiative, a program operated by Ducks Unlimited, aims to build winter wheat acres to one-quarter of all Western Canada (wheat) acres. Although strides in crop and market development have been made, we still have a long way to go.”

Acreage is projected to climb somewhat this fall, mostly because this year’s earlier-than-normal spring seeding will translate into a longer window between harvest and frost for fall seeding.

The holdup on a major increase in winter wheat acreage continues to be producers’ misconceptions about the crop, said Klaas.

“This isn’t your grampa’s or your dad’s winter wheat. Plant breeders have made huge strides,” she said. “It’s not a low-effort, low-return crop anymore. And winter survivability is no longer the big concern it used to be.”

The reseeding rate due to winterkill on the Prairies is now about nine per cent, she said.

“But if you look at a 10-year period of any spring-seeded crop, you’ll see a reseeding rate of about one in 10 due to flooding, disease, insects, etc. In farming, there is always uncertainty. The only difference with winter wheat is that it is in the ground longer, which means you unfortunately have a longer period to worry.”

This year’s crop enjoyed virtually 100 per cent winter survivability, even though a very minimal snowpack provided little insulation through the cold months. Improved genetics also offered protection from stripe rust: despite near-ideal conditions for disease development, fewer than expected commercial fields planted to resistant varieties reported stripe rust concerns in 2016.

Market challenge

Prices for winter wheat are lower, partly because there are few export markets specific to Canadian Western Red Winter wheat. Rather, the crop is either mixed in with Canadian Hard Red Spring wheat or, if it is sold as a winter wheat-specific block, it is mixed with American winter wheat.

However, Canadian Red Winter wheat has unique baking characteristics. It is harder than American winter wheat and can have higher protein than Canadian Hard Red Spring wheat, which means it has the potential to be marketed as a preferred option for specific end uses.

“What the Canadian Grain Commission, Ducks Unlimited, and their partners are trying to do is establish Canadian Western Red Winter wheat as a unique variety,” said Klaas. “If we can sell it as a unique variety, we can target our marketing to specific countries and specific end uses.”

The problem, like so many marketing dilemmas, is that the promoters’ efforts are a bit of a chicken and egg scenario.

“Obviously you need significant acreage so you can fill market. But, the question is this: Do you find the market and build the acres, or do you build the acres and then try to find the market? As soon as you default on an order, that customer is going to get cold feet and will go shop elsewhere. That’s what we’re working on right now.”

Their goal is lofty. In order to build sustainable markets, they need to convince farmers to plant 25 per cent of their wheat acreage — a full 1,665,000 acres in Alberta — into a fall-seeded crop.

“Producers just need to have an open mind. Winter wheat has so much potential,” said Klaas. “Eventually, we’ll see winter wheat grown commonly all the way up into the Peace. It’s just a matter of trying to capture growers’ positive experiences and building on that, but that will take time.

“We see a really bright future ahead. But we don’t always want to talk about tomorrow. Right now, winter wheat is a great option.”

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