Farmers living on the edge

The success of the 2011 crop year should be determined in the next few weeks.

Barley grows on a farm west of Morningside.

Barley grows on a farm west of Morningside.

The success of the 2011 crop year should be determined in the next few weeks.

“It’s one of those years where it feels like we’re living on a knife edge,” said Harry Brook, a field crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development’s Ag Info Centre in Stettler. “You’re teetering one way or another on whether it’s going to be a good year.”

As August draws to a close, there’s certainly the potential for a bumper crop, he acknowledged.

“It’s definitely above average.”

But with canola and cereals about 10 days behind normal, farmers could again find themselves in a frantic race against Jack Frost — with millions of dollars in revenues on the line.

“It’s a real concern,” said Brook. “We’ve got quite a few crops here that were later-seeded. We need about two weeks of really good weather to bring the majority of crops along to the maturity stage where they won’t be affected by frost.”

Around Red Deer, there’s a 50 per cent chance of frost by Sept. 13, he said. If the mercury dips only slightly below zero and stays there briefly, damage should be minimal; but its only a matter of time before a killing frost does come, with the odds 50-50 that this will happen before the end of September.

Some local crops will need at least that long to ripen, said Brook.

The Canadian Wheat Board Bulletin, issued on Monday, calculated that nine per cent of Alberta’s 2011 crop has been harvested — about half of the norm for this time of the year.

“I think the percentage is a little high,” said Brook. “We’re just at the very earliest stage.”

Some producers are now cutting canola to help even out the ripeness of the seeds.

“I would say swathing of canola will be pretty general by the end of this week.”

Combining of cereal crops could be underway by next week, he added.

If farmers are blessed with an extended period of favourable weather, the payoff could be high. The Wheat Board’s Aug. 26 Pool Return Outlook pegged spring wheat at $8.74 a bushel, durum at $11.35, malting barley at $7.38 and feed barley at $5.49. Meanwhile, crushers have been paying up to $13 for canola in recent days.

“It’s a rare occurrence — sort of like the stars aligning properly — where there’s actual profitability there if you can get the crop off,” said Brook.

But, he cautioned, risks will remain even after the crop is in the bin. Heat and moisture can create ideal breeding conditions for pests, and destroy stored grain and seed.

Farmers should also exercise extra caution during the busy days ahead to avoid an injury or fatality, urged Brook.

“It’s a dangerous occupation, farming. When you’re short of sleep, that’s when mistakes happen.”

Although yields and quality were hurt by adverse weather last year, the Canadian Wheat Board said Prairie producers will still pocket $5.8 billion — their fourth-highest net return ever.

For the 2011 crop year, the Wheat Board is forecasting increased production of wheat, durum and barley. This echoes the results of a recent Statistics Canada survey of Alberta farmers, with most respondents anticipating improved production this year.

Hay this year will likely be adversely affected by wet conditions that delayed the first cut, said Brook.

“There’s no shortage of hay at the moment, but I’m wondering about quality. A lot of the first-cut hay was not cut until August.”

He encourages livestock producers to test their hay to ensure it can provide the nutrients their animals need.

It’s now probably too late for a second cut, unless producers wait until after the first killing frost, said Brook. That’s because the plants should be allowed at least two weeks of growth prior to going dormant so their roots have sufficient reserves for the winter.