The return of snow cover and colder weather have winter wheat growers heaving a sigh of relief — but they’re still uncertain about the long-term future of the crop.
Ken Gross, Ducks Unlimited agronomist for the group’s winter wheat initiative, said a couple of weeks ago his phone was ringing off the hook as temperatures soared and snow cover quickly dissipated.
“Now with the moisture, and it’s colder again, I think we’re pretty good,” Gross said during an interview following Winter Cereals Manitoba’s annual meeting here March 15.
As days get longer and temperatures rise, winter wheat is less cold tolerant, but it doesn’t start to “deharden” until nighttime temperatures start staying above 0 C, Gross said. However, he did find some plants in warmer parts of the province starting to grow.
“I don’t think we have much to worry about in most of Manitoba,” Gross said. “Those plants will probably be a little weaker because they used a bit of their energy, but there’s still lots of energy left in those crowns to begin growth again.”
This time of year, winter wheat crowns can survive soil temperatures of -10 C, he said.
“It would have to get pretty cold — I’d say -20 for about five days — to drop the soil temperature that much and that’s unlikely, so I’m not concerned at all.”
Moreover, last week snow once again covered many parts of agro-Manitoba, adding new protection should temperatures suddenly plummet.
Manitoba’s winter wheat acreage plunged in 2015, down 43 per cent to 144,408 acres, based on crop insurance data published in Yield Manitoba earlier this year. The 10-year average is 310,400 acres.
At least partly that’s due to new competition from upstart new spring wheat varieties.
Winter Cereals Manitoba president Doug Martin says Faller and Prosper, two high-yielding American Dark Northern Spring milling wheats, are cutting into winter wheat acres.
“There have been years where, for whatever reason, we’ve had more (winter wheat) winterkill in the Red River Valley,” said Martin, who farms at East Selkirk. “Now we have varieties planted in the spring that yield just as well as winter wheat, so producers are just naturally moving to what they’re successful at. They are good varieties and there are markets developing for Faller wheat. We’re under competition with them. And they are also worth more. No question they’re a good fit for the valley.”
In 2015, Manitoba winter wheat yields averaged 65 bushels an acre, which was close to the 10-year average, according to crop insurance data. But “feed wheat,” which includes Faller and Prosper, averaged 67. Prosper averaged 69 bushels an acre province-wide.
Winter wheat CDC Falcon averaged 73 bushels, but it was moved several years ago from the Canada Western Red Winter (CWRW) wheat class to Canada Western General Purpose because it falls short on baking quality.
Despite the new competition, winter wheat still has a fit, Martin said. Seeding in the fall and harvesting early spreads the workload and offsets risk. There are agronomic advantages in reducing weed and disease pressures and covering the soil through fall, winter and spring. Winter wheat provides environmental benefits too for birds and other wildlife.
“It can take a lot of water in June and that’s what a lot of producers really like,” Martin said.
Faller and Prosper are not expected to be as popular in most parts of Saskatchewan where it is drier, said Winter Cereals Canada chair Dale Hicks, who farms at Outlook, Sask.
Winter wheat could become increasingly popular with Saskatchewan farmers looking to switch from durum, which is susceptible to the fungal disease fusarium head blight.
“The biggest thing now is working on better marketing for winter wheat, because a lot of the large grain companies just call it feed wheat and it gets blown into rail cars and shoved into feedlots,” Hicks said. “It’s going to take specialized grain dealers and marketing agents to take winter wheat on and deliver to end-users.”
Hicks acknowledged grain companies are reluctant to invest in special marketing programs, for fear competitors waltz in later and reap the rewards.
Canadian winter wheat stacks up well compared to its American competitors, Akriti Sharma, the Canadian International Grains Institute’s (Cigi) winter wheat technical specialist told the meeting.
Cigi has analyzed and evaluated five CWRW varieties — Moats, Gateway, Emerson, Flourish and Chase — for quality in milling, baking and in Asian products such as noodles and steamed buns. The Canadian varieties were compared to commercial samples of U.S. Hard Red Winter wheat.
“We found that these CWRW varieties were higher in flour yield and had better colour,” Sharma said in a news release, noting high flour yield is important for millers. “We were unable to source U.S. samples with equivalent protein to make a proper comparison this time but the gluten strength of the CWRW samples was still good as was dough strength. It has good stability and mixing tolerance. Overall I’d say the varieties are competitive, if not better than the U.S. HRW samples.”
Two years of lower winter wheat acreage has reduced Winter Cereals Manitoba’s income. The commodity group that relies on a 50-cent-a-tonne checkoff on winter wheat sales lost $58,347 and $41,856 in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
The organization is not spending money on new research, but is fulfilling its current research commitment, Martin said.
Winter Cereals Manitoba, which has almost $489,000 in unrestricted assets, is a lean operation, added executive director Jake Davidson.
“With a good fall we could be back up to 400,000 acres (of winter wheat),” he said later in an interview.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada estimates Manitoba farmers planted 200,000 acres of winter wheat last fall. That’s a 39 per cent increase from 2014.