Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Corny, but it's getting a lot of respect
Humble crop sees big surge on fields across Manitoba
ARBORG -- What did the corn crop say after receiving compliments and applause?
Corn may be humble, but it's all ears to the raves from farmers this year as corn has become one of the storylines of Manitoba's 2013 harvest.
Area seeded to grain corn more than doubled this year from its historic average, and the crop, which traditionally doesn't perform well in Manitoba because it takes longer to mature, is being grown in areas never seen before.
Grain corn -- corn fed to livestock, or processed into ethanol by Husky Energy in Minnedosa, or into whiskey at the Diageo plant in Gimli -- is being grown as far north as Riverton in the Interlake and even up near Dauphin in the Parkland.
That's due to new hybrid varieties requiring less total seasonal heat.
"It's strange when you look at the crop mix, how it's changed," said Eric Fridfinnson, who farms with his brother, Brian, near Arborg.
"It's just a different world than 10 years ago to the point where corn and soybeans are your major crops now."
The Fridfinnsons have 300 acres of corn this year and Eric sees it becoming a permanent fixture in their crop rotation.
Across Manitoba, 370,000 acres of grain corn were planted this year. That's almost catching up to barley, which was seeded to 500,000 acres this year. Corn is regarded as a superior feed to barley because it contains more energy.
This year's crop is generally looking good, despite the late spring. The stocks stretch up to three metres tall in fields. "It looks absolutely awesome this year. It looks tremendous," said Reg Johnson, who farms down the road from the Fridfinnsons.
"We were running at about 90 per cent of average heat units until August. Then hot weather came and really moved the crop along," said Fridfinnson.
In the past, the only region with enough heat units to grow corn was south of Portage la Prairie to the border, and west and east between Holland and Steinbach. The area averages 2,500 heat units -- the daily maximum and minimum temperatures, divided by two.
But new corn varieties need as little as 2,050 to 2,250 heat units, which has put places such as the Interlake into the game. Arborg averages about 2,350 heat units.
New varieties may need less heat, but there's considerable risk to growing the crop in areas such as the Interlake. Wheat and barley crops are already in the bin but corn is still in the fields. Some farmers were holding their breath overnight last Monday when temperatures dipped to -2 C for two hours in Fisher Branch, but damage to the corn is believed minimal.
With a good forecast through the weekend, most corn should be out of danger for severe damage, although the ideal would be to stay frost-free until the end of the month.
Corn is also riskier because it's an expensive crop to grow in terms of input costs for weed protection and fertilizers.
The surge in grain-corn planting started last year when producers seeded 350,000 acres and corn prices plateaued at $7 per bushel.
The price has since tumbled to $4.80 a bushel and keeps falling due to record production in the United States. That tells you what life as a farmer is about.
Monsanto and Pioneer Grain (owned by Winnipeg's Richardson family) see Manitoba and Saskatchewan as major growth areas and are pouring a lot of money into developing varieties of corn better able to withstand the Prairie climate.
Myron Krahn, Manitoba Corn Growers Association president, believes corn acres will continue to expand in Manitoba. "I think it's great for the province. It's great for farmers to have another option in their crop rotation instead of just wheat, oats and barley."
Three types of corn are grown in Manitoba: sweet corn for the table market; silage, where the entire plant is cut green and mashed for cattle feed; and grain corn.
With sweet corn, between 800 and 1,000 acres are grown per year for the retail market, said Tom Gonsalves, Manitoba Agriculture vegetable specialist. A lot of it is just farm families with a couple acres of corn, selling it on the roadside to pay for their kids to play hockey, he said.
"Two acres of sweet corn doesn't sound like much when talking wheat and barley but that's a lot of cobs of corn," said Gonsalves.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2013 A13
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