Winter wheat heads north

One million acres. That’s the lofty goal the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission has set for the fall-seeded crop that it represents. And although the 2009 tally was only about 260,000 acres, Rick Istead thinks the seven-digit target is achievable.

One million acres.

That’s the lofty goal the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission has set for the fall-seeded crop that it represents. And although the 2009 tally was only about 260,000 acres, Rick Istead thinks the seven-digit target is achievable.

“It’s slowly catching on in the province,” said the commission’s executive director, adding that the acreage fluctuates.

“We’ve had as high as, apparently, 400,000 acres several years ago.”

The Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission, which will hold its annual general meeting in Red Deer on Thursday, is working hard to promote the crop.

Winter wheat enables farmers to spread their workload out, said Istead, with harvest underway long before spring-seeded crops are ripe. Because the plants have a head-start in the spring, there is usually less need for spraying, he added.

By promoting snow capture in the fields, the risk of wind and water erosion is reduced, continued Istead. Ducks Unlimited has even noticed an improvement in the nesting behaviour of some migratory species in winter wheat-seeded fields — the consequence of improved spring cover and fewer disruptions from machinery.

Winter kill can occur, he acknowledged, but if the wheat has time to emerge and become established before it goes into dormancy, it’s usually OK. The greatest risk is a spring thaw followed by sub-zero temperatures.

Historically, winter wheat has been more popular in the southern part of the province, said Istead. He attributes this to irrigation there, an earlier growing season and milder winters.

But, he added, the acreage is expanding to the north. One of the commission’s current directors is Jack Swainson, who farms west of Red Deer.

“It’s an area that we’re trying to expand in, Central Alberta,” said Istead.

Planning and preparation are the keys, he said.

“Planning really starts in the spring, when you start thinking about your spring crops,” said Istead, adding that it’s important producers ensure their seed and fertilizer are ready so they’re not overwhelmed by the demands of harvest and seeding come fall.

“When you get a day where you can put in 300 acres of winter wheat, then just go.”

This year’s late harvest made it difficult for even the most prepared farmers to cope. So the commission is expecting a drop in winter wheat acreage for 2010.

“We’re not 100 per cent sure where we’re at, but we would guess that the acreage is probably going to be off 30 to 40 per cent.”

This year’s AGM, which is open to the public, will feature a lunchtime presentation by Richard Phillips, executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada. Earlier in the day, attendees will hear from the Canadian Grain Commission and the Western Grains Research Foundation, and learn about the latest developments in winter wheat plant breeding.

Funded by a refundable producer check-off, the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission provides money for plant breeding and agronomic research, educates producers about production and marketing, and works to develop markets for winter wheat.

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