Ideal fall makes up for late start

With much of the harvest in the bin, Manitoba producers are mildly disappointed with a just-average crop

This season might be going out like a lamb, with near-optimal harvest conditions, but that doesn’t mean Manitoba grain growers haven’t grappled with their fair share of challenges.

It all started a year ago, with the wet fall of 2019 postponing field work and applications until this spring, and causing many issues that required untangling before and during seeding, according to provincial oilseed specialist Dane Froese.

“We saw that many fields had compaction issues and drainage wasn’t in ideal shape,” Froese said.

As a result, earlier crops — cereals and canola particularly — had their seeding dates pushed back.

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“That first week in May seeding opportunity didn’t really arrive for many and in fact, cereals went in towards the end of the second week of May,” said Froese.

That late start created a domino effect through the entire growing season. Crops were flowering later than normal, so heat blast became an issue with many crops flowering in the hottest part of summer. The late start also translated into a delayed start to the harvest.

Higher rainfall than we had over the past two years resulted in a fairly lush-looking canopy for most crops (usually an indicator of a fairly high yield). That led many farmers to anticipate a bumper crop.

“The NDVI index over Western Canada from satellite imagery never looked as good as it did,” said Froese. Unfortunately, that bumper crop never materialized. Yields, though not poor, were below expectations; which is to say about average for spring wheat and canola, and a little better for barley and oats.

Froese said the reason the lush canopy didn’t turn into a bumper crop was likely the result of a heat wave in mid-July.

“When we have overnight temperatures that don’t dip below 20 or 25°, we tend to see pollination impacted,” said Froese.

Canola is particularly susceptible, but to a lesser extent, so are cereals.

“If flowers are blooming during that time and they’re not given that overnight respite from those hot temperatures, they tend to have pollen-desiccated dry-out and become non-viable,” he explained.

One interesting result was seen in canola where earlier-seeded crops tended to be outperformed by the later-seeded canola crop. Froese said that this is likely explained by a combination of weather conditions and pest problems.

“Early-seeded canola was subject to some fairly severe and intense rainfall situations in late June,” said Froese. “A good chunk of the summer’s average annual rainfall fell in a single thunderstorm event.”

Because canola is less water tolerant than some other crops, Froese says that might have translated into less yield. Another contributing factor is that earlier canola tended to suffer from cutworms and flea beetles this year. Flea beetles are opportunistic feeders and will eat what’s available to them. So that early canola crop was hit hard just because it was there.

“That first buffet for the flea beetles was ready for the taking,” said Froese. Later-seeded canola appears to have escaped some of that flea beetle pressure because the bugs had moved into other crops by the time it started emerging.

Later-season crops, (mainly corn and soybeans) have seen slightly better-than-expected results, especially in light of the problems seen with the earlier crops.

“We were expecting soybeans and corn to have a yield penalty as well, given that they faced the same stressful conditions,” said Froese.

But despite not having much precipitation during August through much of Manitoba, soybeans and corn have been performing fairly well so far.

Despite all the challenges this growing season, the weather this fall has helped get everything back on track.

“In terms of harvest operations, we had a wonderful fall,” says Froese.

The relatively warm and dry autumn has been a boon for growers in the province. As of the Oct. 6 crop report from Manitoba Agriculture, 88 per cent of the crop has been harvested, significantly above the 76 per cent average for this time of year; an impressive result, given the late start to this year’s harvest.

But even this fall hasn’t been without its setbacks. There were early frosts in September that impacted some producers (particularly in southwestern and northwestern Manitoba where crops might have been a little bit less advanced).

“But, by and large, from what I’ve seen from canola yield data and quality so far, the frost damage and green canola seed hasn’t been too much of an issue,” said Froese. “It’s been more noticeable in soybeans.”

But even with soybeans, Froese says the damage hasn’t been as bad as feared, based on early results. But he notes that with only 69 per cent of the soybean crop harvested to date, it’s too early to know for certain.

“Soybean harvest has largely started in the eastern side of Manitoba,” said Froese. “The western side is about to get going, so we might see some changes.”

Looking ahead, Froese says he would like to see a nice steady rainfall across much of Manitoba sometime this fall.

“Topsoils are getting dry to the point of being depleted,” he said. “And we really want to see that recharge happening before winter freeze-up occurs, and that way we can start with some moisture in spring 2021.”

A rain would also help in areas where tillage occurs.

“We would like to see some moisture in order to have a smoother till in this fall, rather than having a very cloddy surface and a very rough surface going into the seedbed next spring,” said Froese, also noting that in areas where zero till is more common, the fall cultivation pass is less of a concern.

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