After a winter dominated by exceptionally warm and dry weather across the Canadian Prairies, early-season fears that this summer would be a repeat of the last, punctuated by heat, dryness, and raging forest fires, have eased dramatically, with ample moisture and cooler weather bringing an air of optimism to the nation’s farmers.

This time last year, many Prairie farmers were in the grip of a season from hell, as the El Niño weather phenomenon that brought warm and dry weather to the winter strengthened across the boreal spring and summer. With very little relief from the drought conditions through to harvest, principal field crop production in 2023/24 declined dramatically.

Fast forward 12 months, and the El Niño weather pattern that warms ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, leading to warm and dry conditions over the Prairies, is dissipating. More normal seasonal conditions have returned, with low-pressure systems that cover large areas and bring lots of rain more frequent. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) meteorologist Terri Lang, the change is likely due to the straightening of the jet stream, the delineator between warmer and colder air, that happens once El Niño weakens.

At the end of May, 67 per cent of the agricultural lands across the Canadian Prairies were still in some form of dryness or drought, but that was down from 99 per cent at the end of April. According to the Canadian Drought Monitor, “extreme” or “exceptional” levels of drought had ended in eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan by May 31, the first time that has been the case in more than 12 months. Large swathes of southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta are now free of any drought classification for the first time in around three years.

However, the ECCC’s longer-range forecast points to a warmer and drier-than-normal summer, which could threaten final production in 2024/25. Much of the Prairies has at least a 60 per cent chance of seeing above-average temperatures and a 40 to 60 per cent chance of seeing below-average precipitation through July and August. That said, the spring was also supposed to be warmer and drier than usual but ended up cooler and wetter.

The favourable start to the season and some early spring price incentives have seen Canadian farmers plant more canola at the expense of wheat than initially indicated back in March, according to the latest principal crop area and production estimates released by Statistics Canada in the last week of June. The June 2024 Field Crop Survey of 25,000 farms was conducted from May 15 to June 12 and put the total area planted to Canada’s principal field crops this season at 31.82 million hectares, fractionally lower than the 31.9Mha seeded in 2023/24.

The government agency reported canola seedings for the 2024/25 season at 8.91Mha, up around 2.9 per cent or 250,000 hectares from the March planting intentions forecast but fractionally lower than the 8.94Mha planted in last year’s campaign. The seeded footprint compares favourably with the five-year average of 8.7Mha.

In Saskatchewan, where more than half of the country’s canola is grown, farmers reported planting 4.9Mha to the oilseed crop this season, 2.5 per cent lower than in 2023. In Alberta, growers advised plantings this spring were 2.59Mha, up 0.4 per cent from 2023, while in Manitoba, the seeded area is up 6.6 per cent to 3.3Mha.

Statistics Canada’s total wheat area is estimated at 10.78Mha, down around 1.5 per cent from the March forecast of 10.94Mha and 1.1 per cent lower than the 2023 planted area of 10.9Mha. However, seedings at that level would still be well above the five-year average of 10.2Mha.

At 71 per cent of the nation’s total wheat acreage, spring wheat plantings came in at 7.66Mha, down 220,000 hectares or 2.8 per cent year-on-year. Conversely, the durum area of 2.58Mha is up more than 130,000 hectares, or 5.5 per cent, compared to last year. The expanse of winter wheat seeded in the fall and remaining viable after any winterkill is reported at just over 540,000 hectares, 5.8 per cent lower season-on-season.

Saskatchewan farmers reported planting 5.75Mha of wheat in 2024, unchanged compared to 2023. However, the 2.1 per cent fall in the spring wheat portion was offset by a 2.9 per cent rise in durum wheat to 2.06Mha. To the east in Alberta, farmers recorded a total wheat area of 3.16Mha, 1.6 per cent lower than in 2023. This was driven by a 4.9 per cent decrease in the spring wheat area to 2.63Mha, despite the 19.4 per cent increase in the durum wheat footprint to almost 500,000 hectares. Manitoba producers reported a 1.4 per cent fall in the wheat area to 1.29Mha.

Barley is the second biggest cereal crop grown in Canada each season, and like wheat, farmers revised their seeded acreage lower than their March planting intentions. In the June survey, farmers reported a seeded area of 2.58Mha, the smallest crop in the past seven years. This is 10.5 per cent lower than the March estimate of 2.89Mha and 12.5 per cent lower than last year’s area of 2.96Mha.

Saskatchewan led the lower barley sowing, down 17.5 per cent year-on-year to 930,000 hectares. In Alberta, the planted area declined by 8.6 per cent to 1.42Mha, while the Manitoba crop fell 24.9 per cent to less than 130,000 hectares. A return to well above-average yields is now required to push 2024/25 production higher than last harvest.

Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of oats annually, but 2023/24 supplies are extremely tight leading into this year’s harvest after a 35.8 per cent fall in last year’s seeded area and the ongoing drought led to a 50 per cent fall in production. While the plantings have recovered by 14.9 per cent to 1.18Mha this year, they are still well below the 1.59Mha planted in the 2022/23 season. Above-average yields are required this season to replenish the supply pipeline and meet traditional domestic and export demand in 2024/25.

In Saskatchewan, the largest oat-producing province, the planted area has risen 22.3 per cent to 530,000 hectares this year. Producers in Alberta and Manitoba also reported an increase in their seeded area of 13.0 per cent and 11.3 per cent, respectively.

On the pulse front, lentils are Canada’s biggest crop each season, and in 2024/25, the planted area is reported at 1.7Mha, up from the 1.54Mha indicated by growers in March. This is 14.80 per cent higher year-on-year after a 15.1 per cent decrease in 2023. Both major lentil-producing provinces noted a higher seeded acreage, with Saskatchewan increasing 14.0 per cent to 1.46Mha and Alberta rising 19.6 per cent to around 230,000 hectares.

With soil moisture reserves restored, an aggressive planting campaign behind them, and excellent early vegetative growth, Canadian farmers desperately want a kind summer to bank this season’s winter and spring crop potential. However, yields remain sensitive to the warm and dry forecast, and ongoing rainfall is required to finish the crop.

Call your local Grain Brokers Australia representative on 1300 946 544 to discuss your grain marketing needs.

Written by Peter McMeekin.

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