Tracking Crop Footprints

Posted in: Farming     

Nothing ever stays the same. Whether due to climate change, new seed varieties or advances in genetics, crop footprints in North America are shifting. Find out what’s altering the destiny of soybeans, corn and canola — and how savvy growers are making the most of changing crop footprints.

 

Ernie Sirski stepped out on a limb three years ago, and he’s glad he did. The Dauphin, Manitoba farmer had no guarantee that soybeans would thrive on his farm — or even if they’d survive. 

But crops that seemed risky or even unthinkable 10 years ago are becoming the norm in some areas. Crops have always had clear footprints, but as growers adapt to maintain profitability in a changing agronomic environment, those footprints can change. It might be risky to try a new crop, but farmers such as Sirski have been finding that calculated risks often pay off.

“We have to make sure we can maintain the longevity of the farm on a profitable basis and that means we grow a multitude of crops,” says Sirski, who farms 4,500 acres and has grown a total of 2,500 acres of soybeans in the last three years.

Soybeans and corn have massive global footprints — but just a pinky toehold in Western Canada, outside of a small area in southern Manitoba. 

However that appears to be changing, thanks to investment from seed companies in early maturing varieties and farmers such as Sirski who are willing to try growing them.

So, what will happen as more new crops become viable options for Prairie farmers? Will prices for other crops rise as different sectors compete to buy acres or will some crops simply fall out of fashion? 

Will adding soybeans and corn, two Round-Up Ready crops, to a rotation, hasten the onset of more glyphosate resistant weeds? That’s definitely a risk, but sometimes there is risk in not changing. 

As Kevin Elmy, a farmer at Saltcoats, Saskatchewan pointed out, many of the pulse crops currently grown rely on our ability to use of Group 2 herbicides. Perhaps including soybeans in a rotation will allow farmers to clean up fields with Group 2 resistant weeds so they can continue to grow peas and lentils.

The last few years on the Prairies have been quite wet and soybeans and corn can certainly take the moisture. In fact, Sirski says his soybeans have performed better under excess moisture than did canola. 

“If we’re stuck in this kind of weather pattern, we’ve got to find a crop that can grow in it,” says Sirski. 

The new soybean varieties and corn hybrids offer flexibility for dealing with what Markus Braaten, the U.S. director of Agri-Trend Inc.’s Agri-Knowledge division, deems a “dynamic” climate system in which we exist. 

Based in Kalispell, Montana, Braaten has observed shifts in crop footprints both locally and further afield. 

“We need to have a cropping system that’s very versatile and that’s what I see when we start plugging in other commodities,” says Braaten. 

In that context, what’s so interesting is how the genetics of corn, soybeans and canola are catching up to farmers’ need for nimble footwork in the field.

 

The Story of Soy

 

When Sirski planted his first acres of soybeans in 2012, he wanted to save on fertilizer costs by growing a crop that fixed its own nitrogen, while diversifying his crop rotation. And the crop he added to his rotation had to be profitable.

“We grew a variety of things, but canola and wheat were still the main crops on our farm,” says Sirski. “We knew that with what’s happened in Alberta with clubroot, sooner or later it was going to come to Manitoba.” 

A sustained effort by various seed companies and plant breeders to commercialize early maturing soybean varieties has yielded results. Sirski’s soybeans averaged 40 bushels per acre in 2013, which was in-line with the provincial average of 39.1 bushels per acre, according to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC), the provincial crop insurer. 

Soybean acres have continued to expand in all three Prairie provinces. 

Manitoba planted 1.3 million acres in 2014 compared to just 441,000 acres five years ago and 187,000 acres 10 years ago, according to MASC. 

In 2013, Statistics Canada first recorded seeded acreage in Saskatchewan with 170,000 acres and by 2014, that had increased to 280,000 acres. 

Since soybean acreage in Alberta is quite small, neither Statistics Canada or the provincial crop insurance tracks official data. However, Tilley, Alberta seed grower Patrick Fabian, who monitors soybean-growing regions closely, estimates there are about 11,000 acres in the province. 

While Western Canadian farmers could look east to Ontario and Quebec for experience and resources in soybean production, not everything translates directly. In last year’s test fields, varieties adapted for Ontario’s low pH soils turned yellow and shed their nodules in Manitoba’s high pH soils, where iron is less available
to plants. 

This condition, called iron deficiency chlorosis, affects some soybean varieties more than others. As a result, seed companies looked to the Dakotas, Minnesota and even Ukraine for varieties better suited to Western Canada. 

Kevin Elmy remembers bringing some Ontario varieties of soybeans to Southern Alberta for demonstration trials in 1997. At the time, he was a marketing rep for SeCan, a private seed company and he wanted another crop to try growing on his farm. 

SeCan had an established presence in the conventional (non-herbicide resistant) soybean market in Quebec and Ontario. While there is a premium for conventional beans in some markets, Round-up Ready varieties dominate the western Canadian market. 

Elmy says there used to be only three soybean varieties that performed passably in his region, but last year he trialled six varieties on his farm. 

“Now that plant breeders have identified Saskatchewan as a huge market, they are spending time, energy and resources in developing genetics for this market,” he notes.

In the past, plant breeders in Ontario and Quebec mowed out varieties that matured too early. Now, they screen them for suitability in Western Canada. Researchers are exploring the potential of daylight sensitive varieties that mature with fewer heat units because they are exposed to more daylight in northern locations. 

Case in point: agribusiness giant Monsanto has stepped into the game, bringing millions of research dollars to
the table. 

Dan Wright, Guelph, Ontario-based Canadian trait launch lead at Monsanto, says the company looked at the small Western Canadian market in both soybeans and corn two years ago, and started asking, “If we invested and if we
got the maturity down, how big could the acres be?” 

The company talked to growers who told them they would welcome additional crops that would be profitable in Western Canada. This year, Monsanto has 65 soybean trial sites across the Prairies, including in the Peace River area (Alberta and B.C.), Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta and across Saskatchewan. 

“We’re pushing both corn and soybeans to the edge of failure and beyond,” says Wright. “In some areas we learned that we’re yielding pretty well, in other areas we learned that we’re almost there. The maturity needs to be a little better or the yield needs to be better to compete with other crops.” 

While the yield and maturity risk for producing soybeans remains, Monsanto has hired eight new technology team members to aid farmers as they learn to grow soybeans. 

SeCan continues to advance in the Western Canadian soy market with their member seed growers gaining expertise before retailing seed to their neighbours. Unlike hybrid canola seed, which is grown centrally and distributed across the Prairies, soybean seed is a bulky crop that SeCan believes is better produced locally.

“You don’t know the local adaptation until the seed grower gets them into their hands, grows them for a season or two and becomes the local expert,” notes Todd Hyra, SeCan’s western business manager. 

Hyra says SeCan takes a cautious approach to promoting soybeans in Western Canada, waiting until the genetics catch up before pushing farther west. He points to the growth curve of soybeans in Manitoba over the last 10 years, which was on a “life support line until the genetics were ready.” 

Alongside all these private entities, a new organization is forming to bring national guidance to the soybean industry. Twenty-seven organizations representing producers, crushers, exporters and seed companies signed a letter of intent to form Soy Canada, announcing their interim board of directors in September. 

Back in Dauphin, Ernie Sirski, vice-chair of the new organization, is watching these developments closely.

“I see this as a great opportunity for the entire soybean sector to work together, which I think is a great opportunity to help Canadian agriculture in general,” says Sirski, adding that the group will focus on market development, agronomic research and exploration into traits like oil and protein content. 

 

Corn Rolls

 

In many ways, the fortunes of corn and soybeans in Western Canada are linked. Both are warm-season crops that require a lot of heat units to mature. Both are globally traded commodities with fairly direct routes to market. Most observers agree that soybeans are likely to advance quicker in Western Canada. 

“We’re at an earlier maturing product already,” says Monsanto’s Wright. “Plus, growers don’t have
to buy a lot of equipment to get into soybeans.” 

To produce corn, however, growers will need a corn planter, corn header and a grain dryer. As Sirski quips, “Be prepared to combine corn on Christmas Eve and dry it on Christmas Day.”

While soybeans are an established, consistent part of Elmy’s crop rotation, corn remains on trial at his eastern Saskatchewan farm. His rule of thumb is 110-bushel corn yields replace wheat for
net income in rotation. However, at today’s low corn prices, the risk of corn does not appeal to him. 

“At $7 corn, I’ll be back in,” he says. The other benchmark that seed companies are striving for is 68 to 70 day maturity. DuPont Pioneer recently invested in a multi-million dollar research and breeding station in Lethbridge, Alberta where they will work towards this goal. 

Greg Stokke, Western Canada business director for the global corporation, says DuPont analyzed the market and the agronomics extensively before embarking on this project. 

“You don’t build a research centre without doing all the work,” says Stokke. “They’re very expensive.” 

The facility, which will add soybean research and breeding in the future, is slated to open later this year but staff planted corn plots this spring so there will be data before there are door jambs! 

A farmer himself near Watrous, Saskatchewan, Stokke experimented with corn on his own land this year, planting strips of ten varieties and inviting local farmers to visit the plots.

“We’ll learn as a community,” says Stokke, who pointed out that DuPont is not merely focused on their own research, but is collaborating with grower groups, extension specialists, fertilizer companies, natural gas suppliers and crop insurance companies. 

Stokke believes there will be several million acres of grain corn available on
the Prairies, if maturity can be pushed to that 68-70 day range. Dan Wright at Monsanto predicts eight to 10 million acres for corn and six to eight million acres of soy in ten years. 

Or, perhaps those figures will be reversed. Either way, Statistics Canada puts the numbers at 1.53 million acres of soybeans planted in 2014 and 330,000 acres of grain corn for 2014 — so there’s a ways to go. 

Nevertheless, talk to enough people who are committed to bringing these crops to Western Canada and it begins to feel all but inevitable.

 

Braving Brassica

 

This story could also be told from another angle, with a traditionally Western Canadian field crop as the main character moving into other territories. 

In fact, 2004 was the first year of substantial canola production in Oklahoma. Since then, producers there have steadily added acres to their rotation, planting 300,000 acres in fall 2013. Oklahoma is now the second largest canola-producing state in the U.S., according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University. 

The Southern Great Plains region, which encompasses Western Oklahoma as well as North Texas, Kansas and Eastern Colorado, is primarily a winter wheat producing area. 

Ron Sholar, the Stillwater, Oklahoma-based executive director of the Oklahoma Oilseed Commission, explains that years of back-to-back winter wheat eroded yields, despite genetic advances. Producers first planted winter canola to break the cereal disease cycle and add diversity to their herbicide rotation. 

“When we started growing canola, the exclusive idea was to improve wheat yield,” says Sholar. “What we’ve learned is that this crop provides a nice profit on its own.” Sholar’s organization works to improve oilseed production and promote market development and it seems to be working. Three years ago, there were three local delivery points accepting canola, says Sholar — now there are 20 grain buyers with crushers in Oklahoma City and Kansas turning the seed into oil.

“We’re not trying to replace all the wheat acres, but we want to be in the canola market,” Sholar says. 

He envisions a million acres of canola grown in the Southern Great Plains, although he said that number “makes some people uncomfortable.”

Sholar’s region has been dry for four years and a winter crop is its only hope for surviving blistering hot summers. Sholar admits that when times are tough, farmers are more likely to revert to growing what they’re familiar with, but he hopes canola can help farmers manage their climate struggles.

“We like to say that canola has some drought tolerance. It has a deep tap root that will go down and look for water,” says Sholar, adding, “…there has to be some water.”

Oklahoma farmers’ original impetus for planting canola — improving their wheat yields — demonstrates a wide-angle view of farm profitability. 

“We’ve shifted away from looking at, ‘What is my return this year on this crop’ to ‘What is my return over the cropping system if I plug in these other commodities?’” explains Markus Braaten.

It’s the same mindset of a central Alberta farmer who grows field peas. While the crop may not bring as much cash into the farm as canola, the savings derived from not having to apply nitrogen and the nitrogen they leave in the soil, though a harder value to measure, can improve farm profitability in the long run. Other residual benefits of a diverse rotation include better weed, disease and insect control.

“Some benefits are difficult to measure: How do you assign value to reducing wild oat populations?” asks Braaten. Or, in the case of growers in Braaten’s state of Montana, the value of reducing orange blossom wheat midge pressure on wheat crops?

“We’re seeing a lot more expansion of canola into what has been a wheat-fallow or wheat-barley cropping system,” says Braaten. By planting a non-host crop like canola, growers can combat the orange blossom wheat midge without relying solely on pesticides. A glyphosate resistant crop also gives increased herbicide diversity to their rotation, he notes.

Add to these agronomic benefits an increasing demand from Pacific Northwest canola crushers and the case for growth in canola acres seems logical. The United States Census of Agriculture pegged Montana’s harvested canola acres at 7,872 in 2007 and 47,851 in 2012.

 

Cashing In

 

Before soybeans were a twinkle in a Saskatchewan farmer’s eye, they had eclipsed wheat production in Ontario in about 1982. 

Once canola was a specialty crop in the bread basket of the Prairies — but no more. Now, those same Prairie provinces are equal parts yellow and green in the summer months. 

Canola, a crop that presents huge disease challenges in Western Canada, also provides relief from pests in Montana and Oklahoma. Meanwhile tall tassels and shrubby soybeans creep west and north, promising high values — and perhaps all the benefits wider rotations will offer.

Modern communication allows farmers to learn from someone on the other side of the world the way they once learned from those on the other side of the fence. 

The changing footprint of corn, soybeans and canola are part of this story — and may be key for farmers in different geographies to add diversity to their rotation while still maintaining profitability. 

 


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