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Spring is looking tough in many areas … hope and luck will be needed

Crop producers are used to the trials and tribulations of fickle spring weather, but this year their fortitude will indeed be tested.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD -- Crop producers are used to the trials and tribulations of fickle spring weather, but this year their fortitude will indeed be tested. Through ingenuity and tenacity, a crop is usually seeded but it’s never easy. This year seeding is being aggravated by the presence of unharvested crop left from last fall. It has been estimated that one million acres were left unharvested last year and removing that old crop will be a costly exercise despite crop insurance payments. Part of the problem is red tape by Alberta Financial Services whenever growers want to change the harvesting protocol connected to the insurance claim. This involves an assessment by crop inspectors who are hard pressed to inspect the many hundreds of thousands of acres involved. Crop salvage is part of the issue being considered but much is beyond any use, including livestock feeding.

Your humble writer has some understanding of seeing unharvested crops in the spring – it wasn’t an uncommon situation in my previous ranching life in the B.C.’s Peace River district and seems to occur there at least two out of every 10 years. Producers there have coped with the problem in a variety of ways including combining in the dead of winter harvesting snow covered swaths. But that only works if the snow isn’t too deep and the ground is well frozen. Those conditions didn’t arrive in some of the areas further south and so the crop had to be left until spring.

One recalls 30 years ago seeing some of the first caterpillar-type tracks being used on combines, having been jerry-rigged by inventive grain producers. One has to be versatile and creative to grow crops in the Peace. It’s hard to believe, but some of the salvaged canola crops were still marketable and frozen grains usually found a home as livestock feed. For those affected, the start to this year will surely be a trial and it appears that seeding plans were further aggravated by wet fields in several areas. Many producers are being faced with a very wet spring causing delays in seeding. That may well result in a change in cropping plans with some canola acres being switched to barley if delays go into June.

It could get worse of course if weather forecasts of a dry summer prove to be true. These issues may be relatively mild, however, compared to what crop growers in many parts of Ontario and Quebec are facing. Most of the corn, soybeans, and field crops should have been planted a month ago but with massive amounts of rain and significant flooding it is unlikely that many of those crops will even be planted this year.

The wet weather has also affected significant areas of the American midwest – the impact there is yet to be determined but any delay could affect corn and barley prices – that’s bad news for feedlots, particularly in southern Alberta. That’s all they need, specifically those in Lethbridge county, who over the next year will be hit with the ever-increasing carbon tax, a new per head county tax, and the possible reimposition of a non-refundable cattle check-off that could add $20 or more per head to their cost structure. Cattle prices haven’t exactly been robust and operators are going to have to be hedging geniuses to avoid some real losses. The only sector that might be smiling (a little bit anyway) are cow/calf producers and stocker operations. The wet weather has every likelihood of bringing good pastures and solid hay crops. But even those lucky folks along with the rest of the Canadian cattle industry may be hit from another angle if the US President decides to take another swipe at Canadian trade by reimposing US COOL on cattle and beef imports. That would hit cattle prices at every level of production.

One ponders what our NDP government might be contemplating in view of what the various sectors of the Alberta agricultural economy are facing. So far the Minister has issued the usual platitudes about his deep concerns and that his officials are monitoring the situation. I guess to be fair that’s probably what any ag minister would say. What must be tormenting this minister is the possibility of having to ask his cabinet colleagues for billions, if a crop disaster develops this summer. Not an easy task for a sector where NDP voters can be counted on a few hands. But then hope and luck are always key ingredients in both agriculture and politics.