Crop and livestock producers anxious during ‘annual hope’

At press time, one could sense the anxiety level of crop producers. The reason being that springtime is slow to arrive.

At press time, one could sense the anxiety level of crop producers. The reason being that springtime is slow to arrive. It’s of particular concern in southern Alberta — the home of many specialty crops that need to be seeded early into a warming soil. Growers of sugar beets, potatoes, beans, corn and a host of vegetables are getting worried not just with the late spring but the possibility of late frosts in May. The other side of the coin is that with a later start it will take an exceptional summer to avoid a late harvest and the spectre of early September frosts.

One can cite that this is just the risk of cold climate farming, but this has not been the trend in the last few years. One of the benefits of global warming, at least in this part of the country, has been earlier springs. Even an advancement of a week is critical as it allows for better and more timely land preparation. That helps the agronomics of a crop-growing plan and has a significant impact on better yields at harvest.

To add to the late spring woe, there has been steady snow and rainfall in most areas. Moisture is always welcome, but in the springtime it can add days of delay due to wet fields. Over the years at least with some crops, wet fields are becoming of increasing concern because of the immense size of machinery. Depending on the situation big rigs can cause significant rutting or soil compaction on wet soils. One could anticipate that with weather and moisture delays, the seeding of many crops could be delayed well into late May. That’s no big deal in northern parts of the province where growers are used to seeding in late May and even early June, but it’s a bad start for specialized crops. On the other hand a wet spring is usually good news for pasture and hay crops, which makes livestock producers happy campers.

There is good news for irrigation farming, the snowpack in the mountains seems to be average and if there is a regular runoff, reservoirs will be full for most of the year. An ace in the hole for the industry have been the technology leaps that has seen water application efficiency increase by up to 20 per cent. Add into that canal replacement with pipelines, and water shortages are becoming less of a threat even if the snowpack is down. It’s one of those little publicized environmental success stories that the public doesn’t hear much about. It has a down side being that progress is used against the industry by green lobby groups as an indication that major irrigation infrastructure does not need to be further developed and expanded.

There is also anxiety brewing in the livestock industry. The cattle feedlot and beef packing industry have seen significant per head losses for some time now with some lots empty due to financial distress. With losses of around $100 per head only the well-financed will survive. Luckily we have very sophisticated operators well versed with risk management techniques to survive this round. One does fear for cow/calf operators who will surely end up paying for a good chunk of those losses come this fall. The only thing that may save them from that marketing correction is that the cow herd continues to decline and affects the feeder calf supply. But if there are fewer feedlot buyers and continued border restrictions that may not help them, either.

One of the causes of feedlot financial distress has been the high price of feedgrains over the past year. There was hope for this year being that there were indications that corn seeding would increase significantly in the U.S. midwest. More corn would put pressure on feedgrain prices in Alberta as feedlot operators have shown no hesitation in bringing trainloads of corn into Alberta when the price is right. But lower feedgrain prices might be illusion being the late spring is also occurring in the U.S. upper midwest where new corn acreage was being planned.

So there you have it — almost universal anxiety for the ag industry this spring. But then a good summer, timely rains and late frosts could change the crop and livestock situation to everyone’s benefit. I guess that’s the annual hope of agriculture.

— AHEAD OF THE HEARD


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