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Seeding anxiety: Late spring pushes farmers to the brink

Farmers race against clock to get crops planted

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A farmer tills his field near the Brandon Municipal Airport on Thursday morning. Colder-than-usual temperatures have delayed the seeding season this year.

BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN FILES Enlarge Image

A farmer tills his field near the Brandon Municipal Airport on Thursday morning. Colder-than-usual temperatures have delayed the seeding season this year.

Some farmers are breathing a huge sigh of relief while others are grinding their teeth in frustration as the clock ticks down on one of the latest spring seeding seasons in Manitoba history.

As was the case in 2013, spring was late in arriving this year in Manitoba. That prevented most farmers from getting onto their fields until almost the middle of May.

Since then, the weather has been hit and miss, depending on where they live. For many in eastern half of the province, there were enough warm, dry days in the last two weeks of May for them to finish, or nearly finish, their seeding, according to Bruce Burnett, a weather and crop specialist with the CWB (formerly the Canadian Wheat Board).

"There is still a little left (to be seeded), but generally speaking, from Portage la Prairie east through Manitoba, we're essentially going to be wrapping it up (this week)."

But many in the rain-plagued western half of the province are nowhere near done, and the crop insurance deadline for things like soy beans, lentils and some corn has already passed.

The deadline for canola -- the province's most popular crop -- is less than a week away.

Burnett estimated only 30 to 50 per cent of the crops in western Manitoba had been planted as of Monday, "so it's not a good picture."

'We're running out of time... I've been hearing some real horror stories out there'

-- Dan Mazier, a vice-president with the Keystone Agricultural Producers

Dan Mazier, a vice-president with the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), has a farm northeast of Brandon in the Justice area. He and his brother, Dave, hope to plant about 2,000 acres of wheat, canola, soybeans, and canary seed this spring. As of Tuesday, they were only 55 to 60 per cent done.

"We're running out of time. We've only got until June 10 for canola," Mazier said. "But I still consider myself really fortunate. I've been hearing some other real horror stories out there."

Further to the west, Oak Lake-area farmer Stan Cochrane is one of those who are even worse off than the Maziers.

Cochrane's family has about 2,000 acres in the Assiniboine Valley that remain under water and won't get seeded this spring. Less than half of its remaining 4,000 acres outside the valley were seeded as of Tuesday.

"It just keeps raining," he said. "We'll just keep hoping... but next week we're supposed to get more rain."

In its latest weekly provincial crop report released late Monday, Agriculture, Food and Rural Development estimated seeding in Manitoba was about 65 per cent completed. It also said farmers in the central, eastern and Interlake regions were much further along than many of their counterparts in the western half of the province.

"There continue to be areas where seeding progress is not as advanced due to wet soil conditions. Producers are modifying their initial seeding plans to account for field availability and seeding date."

Keystone Agriculture president Doug Chorney, who farms in the East Selkirk area, is one of the lucky ones. He finished seeding the last of his 1,500 acres last Thursday.

Chorney said he was able to make great headway last week, thanks to a string of hot, dry days in much of eastern Manitoba. He knows many of his colleagues in western Manitoba weren't as lucky.

He predicted some farmers will take their chances and plant their crops even if the crop insurance deadline passes and they have to settle for reduced insurance coverage.

"We know statistically that late-seeded crops never do as well as the earlier seeded ones," he added.

He said last year was an exception to that general rule. Spring seeding finished late -- not as late as this year -- and Manitoba still had a record crop.

That was due to near-ideal growing conditions during the summer, he added, and there's no guarantee that will happen this year.

Chorney and Burnett said the next 10 days will be critical for those farmers who still have crops to plant. If they don't get a good run of warm, dry weather, they won't make the insurance deadline for canola.

They might make the June 20 deadline for things like wheat, oats, flax barley .

Given the high cost of fertilizer, fuel and other inputs and the risk of lower yields with late-seeded crops, some may opt to leave some fields unseeded, Chorney said. Or maybe they'll wait until the fall and planting a winter-wheat crop if the conditions are favourable.

"It proves once again that Mother Nature is holding all the cards here," he added.

One bit of good news is Manitoba may still match last year's record for soybean acreage. Manitoba Pulse Growers Association executive director Francois Labelle said most of the province's soybean crops are grown in the Red River Valley, and most farmers in the region got them planted before last Friday's initial insurance deadline.

"And a lot of them are out of the ground already, so they're off to a good start," he added.

 

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2014 B4

History

Updated on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 at 7:30 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Bruce Burnett.

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