Prairie Farmers Seen Growing More Pulses, Less Wheat

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Canadian farmers will devote more acres this year to pulse crops such as lentils, because big global supplies of wheat have hit prospects for the crop while uncertainty overhangs canola.

Price outlooks, world supply and demand and considerations as simple as crop rotation schedules all factor into farmer decisions about what to plant in spring. There’s more uncertainty than usual this year, because a late harvest kept many farmers from preparing land for the new crop, said Ken Ball, a futures and options broker with Union Securities in Winnipeg.

Farmers will grow a lot less durum wheat and slightly fewer acres of spring wheat for an all-wheat crop of 24 million tonnes, down from last year’s 26.5 million, according to the Canadian Wheat Board.

What will fill those acres? Flax is unattractive because of European concerns about genetically modified materials. The wheat board forecasts slightly higher acreage of barley, but with the livestock sector reeling, that seems in doubt.

The safest bet is pulse crops. One pulse crop, lentils, has been steadily growing more popular among farmers, due to consistent profits and growing demand from developing countries.

“Lentils have had a couple or three years (of) absolutely phenomenal returns,” said Ron Frost, an analyst with Agri-Trend Marketing in Alberta. “That gets around. (Farmers notice) this guy’s upgrading his equipment, buying extra land, building a new house.”

Acreage of pulse crops could jump 10 to 20 per cent this spring, Frost said.

To be sure, while pulses are popular, they amounted in Canada last year to just 5.6 million tonnes – about one-fifth the size of the all-wheat crop. That leaves acres this year for other crops to fill.

WILD CARD CROPS

Oat supply and demand factors look better for 2010. Dan Caron, a business development specialist with the Manitoba government, expects to see more oat acres from Manitoba into northern Saskatchewan as the calculation of price, cost and yields add up to profit.

However, a 17 per cent plunge in the past three weeks of nearby Chicago oat futures may have turned farmers off, Ball said.

Canola generated mostly negative headlines in 2009, with China slapping on import restrictions and the United States refusing canola meal with salmonella bacteria.

Many farmers appear ready to take a year off from canola to let the soil’s nutrients recharge, said Greg Marshall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

But farmers also noticed the crop’s resiliency in bad weather last summer to produce big yields and good quality.

“Farmers like the way canola has come through for them,” Ball said.

They’re also keeping the big picture in mind, as canola markets like biodiesel expand, said Frost, who expects farmers to seed up to a record 16.5 million acres this spring.

“It always has been one of your crops that can generate cash for you,” he said.

Caron sees record canola planting as high as 17 million acres if there’s any sign of a breakthrough on trade barriers.

“Let’s face it, producers are perpetual optimists.”

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