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Frost Threatens Late-Developing Prairie Grain Crop

The threat of an early and devastat ing frost hangs over the western Canadian grain industry as anxious farmers hope for warm weather in August to ripen seriously delayed crops.

Nearly all of the Prairie grain region has experienced much below-normal temperatures so far this growing season, putting crops two to three weeks behind their normal development.

More than $6 billion worth of wheat, durum and barley could be in jeopardy if frost comes early this fall, Canadian Wheat Board officials warn.

“There’s a very big risk here,” said Larry Hill, CWB chairman. “We certainly have to hope that the weather is favourable and it just doesn’t happen. But the risk is there.”

A quick look at the calendar shows how real that risk is.

According to Environment Canada, average dates for the first frost in fall are Sept. 10 at Brandon and Sept. 22 at Winnipeg. Throughout the Saskatchewan and Alberta grain belt, average first-frost dates range from as early as Sept. 4 in Prince Albert to as late as Sept. 23 in Edmonton.

These are only average dates, meaning that frost arrives earlier 50 per cent of the time.

On his own farm near Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Hill usually finishes harvesting by Sept. 15. This year, his crop is at least two weeks behind schedule and Hill figures he’ll be lucky to get it off by the end of that month.

A turnaround in the weather could speed up crop maturity and reduce the risk of frost damage. But Hill suggested

producers will be fortunate to avoid frost completely with crops so late.

Poor weather – including drought in the West and below-normal temperatures throughout the entire region – has forced the CWB to lower its all-wheat projections this year to 20.2 million tonnes from the 20.8 million tonnes it predicted in June, board officials told a July 30 news conference in Winnipeg.

The board predicts spring wheat production will fall to 16 million tonnes this year from 20 million tonnes in 2008. Durum is expected to slide to 4.2 million tonnes from 5.5 million tonnes last year. Barley will be down to 8.6 million tonnes from 11.2 million tonnes.

Ian White, CWB president and CEO, presented slides showing July temperatures ranged from 4C below normal in eastern Manitoba to 1C below normal in most of Alberta and western Saskatchewan. The percentage of normal growing degree days from April to July was well below average in nearly all of the Prairies.

This year’s crop in Western Canada is about the latest it’s ever been, said Bruce Burnett, the CWB’s weather and crop surveillance director.

The greatest areas of concern are central and northern Saskatchewan, where cool weather has put crops furthest behind schedule.

Last year’s crop was late, too, by seven to 10 days. This year it’s two to three weeks late and cool conditions heading into early August give cause for concern, Burnett said. Overnight temperatures in parts of Saskatchewan dipped into single digits last week.

The prospects of frost damage could result in premiums for high-protein grain this year, said Hill.

“If we have a weather event, the quality premium could increase, especially on Hard Red Spring wheat.”

The frost scare dampened an otherwise-positive yearend report from the CWB.

The wheat board recorded its largest wheat exports in nine years and its second-highest grain revenues ever in 2008-09, figures released at the news conference showed.

The board exported 18.5 million tonnes of wheat, durum and barley for a net revenue to farmers of over $6 billion, second only to returns of $7.2 billion the previous year.

Total wheat production for Western Canada in 2008 was 25.5 million tonnes, the highest since 1996. Barley production was also high at 11.2 million tonnes. [email protected]

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