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A Good Crop Threatened

- Thursday August 25, 2016

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David Walker
Edmonton, AB
phone: +01 780 434 7615
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The 2016 Prairie crop may not end up being as big as the 2013 harvest, but it may be more challenging to handle if the weather does not dry out. (920 words)

Stats Can's July principal field crops estimate is always awaited with great anticipation, but never provides the last word on the year's harvest and supply prospects. The reason for this is simply that the individual estimates are made almost entirely on standing crops by farmers in late July. One would not doubt the ability of farmers to judge the potential of a crop at that stage, but like anybody else they may be less than perfect at anticipating conditions that effect marketable yield between the end of July and the crop hitting the bin.

The incidence of Aster Yellow virus that hit the canola crop in August 2012 and drastically reduced the canola harvest that year is a case in point. As indeed was the almost ideal weather everywhere in 2013 that enhanced earlier expectations resulting in a massive crop.

In truth the July estimates are never proved wrong as the size of the crop is never measured before it is harvested. But the harvested crop is inevitably different in size from the July estimate. All this tends to be forgotten when the July estimate is published in late August.

This does not detract from the value of the July estimate which is made by farmers and almost certainly factors in typical conditions for the maturing and harvesting of the year's crops. It provides a bench mark from which expectations can be raised or lowered according to how much condition vary from the typical. Nobody was able to anticipate the Aster Yellows in 2012 or dared to hope for the great late summer and early fall weather in 2013.

With the July estimate in hand, in late August almost a month after the actual survey, it is possible to start adjusting expectations with weather over that month and start to draw conclusions. And this is what this article is all about. There is little doubt that crop development conditions almost everywhere across the Prairies were very favourable this year, Chart 1.


April-July Prairie Rainfall, 2013 & 2016

The situation was different in eastern Canada but this article will focus on the west. There were very few areas where rainfall fell much below average, and fewer than even in 2013. And there were no periods of sustained hot weather. It is, therefore, not surprising that the July estimate for Prairie crops in total came in 8 percent above the July estimate in 2013, Chart 2.


July estimates of production, 2013 & 2016

This, of course, is not to suggest that the 2016 crop will be 8 percent larger than the extraordinary 2013 crop. Already weather conditions have varied very significantly from 2013. As if on cue the weather turned drier and warmer in August 2013 just as was needed to mature the crop and this was followed by a relative dry harvest with crops generally being garnered in good condition.

This has not been the experience this year. Broken weather continues with weather systems continuing to bring plenty of moisture and often windy condition with it, Chart 3. The implication of this is that crop lodging has become prevalent. Sadly the best crops tend to be the first to lodge, although other factors may be involved. The implication of lodging is, of course, delayed maturity, loss of quality and harvesting challenges that inevitably result in some crop being left on the ground.


August Prairie Rainfall, 2013 & 2016

Increasingly it appears that the 2016 harvest will be a challenging one which will test the relatively recently centralized grain handling system, Chart 4.


Primary elevator numbers and capacity

In 2013 it was the railways that were challenged. For farmers the solution was relatively straight forward. Defer marketing as long as possible. The "queues" at the elevators did not last long, even if the federal government anticipated otherwise. And as the crop was taken off in relatively good condition, there was little lost in storage. The challenge was mostly one of delaying cash flow, and the banks being patient.

If the weather turns warm and dry as it so often does in September, all will be reasonably well. Grades will not be the greatest, but dry crops are relatively easy to handle.

Otherwise, challenges will emerge as out of condition grain seek immediate handling, either at harvest time, or in the spring. The Canadian Prairies have one major advantage over almost all the international competition, at least when it comes to on farm crop storage of out of condition grain, and that is "winter."

The implication is that it would be wise to only take off dry grain when it is warm enough for tough and damp grain to spoil. By leaving any tough and damp grain until it is too cold to spoil, you have probably bought yourself five months for the situation to be sorted.

If there is a challenge with handling the 2016 harvest, it will be interesting to see how the newish government will handle any cry for help. Probably the change in government is fortuitous. Having howled wolf in 2013, the old government may have been less receptive a second time around.

David Walker
August 25, 2016

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