Corn crops point their compass north

What do climate change and western corn share? “Plenty,” says Jeff Rubin

Jeff Rubin is former chief economist for CIBC World Markets, now a bestselling author, and he believes a warmer climate will result in a longer growing season and more heat units on the Canadian Prairies. This, he suggests, could turn the region into the new North American Corn Belt as production inevitably creeps northward.

“The migration of the Corn Belt to the Canadian Prairies could be a double win for Canadian farmers. By switching to corn (and other cash crops like soybeans), farmers would significantly increase the cash flow from their acreage, setting the stage for marked appreciation in farmland values,” writes Rubin in his recent book The Carbon Bubble.

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“Rising temperatures and drought should reduce corn yields and hence production in the U.S. Midwest, with some prime growing areas becoming unsuitable for corn cultivation. Given how important the U.S. is to world production, any reduction of U.S. supply is almost certain to put upward pressure on world corn prices, making the crop all the more valuable for those who can grow it.”

Mind you, Rubin has been spectacularly wrong before. His previous book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, predicted world oil prices would top $200 a barrel by 2012, profoundly affecting economic drivers in industrialized countries. We all know how that turned out.

But something is happening which makes you wonder if the agri-industry isn’t anticipating Rubin’s prognostications. Already, major seed-producing companies are announcing bold plans to develop corn hybrids suitable for Western Canada with the goal of expanding corn acreages significantly.

First out of the gate was Monsanto Canada in June 2013 when it raised eyebrows by launching a 10-year, $100-million program to develop earlier relative maturity corn hybrids adapted to Western Canada. “Taking into consideration crop rotations, this could result in an estimated annual western corn market of eight to 10 million acres by 2025,” a Monsanto news release stated.

Not to be outdone, DuPont Pioneer announced on July 30, 2014 it would construct a multimillion-dollar research facility in Lethbridge “focused on developing ultra-early-maturity corn products for growers in Alberta and Western Canada,” according to a company statement.

All this activity gives the distinct impression of companies trying to turn a currently marginal crop on the Prairies into a major one.

While they don’t say directly that a warming climate is one of the motivators for their research efforts, they imply it.

“It’s certainly something that we’re thinking about,” says Dan Wright of Monsanto Canada. “We certainly believe it’s not going to get cooler in Western Canada. It will continue to get warmer.”

To call corn a minor crop in Western Canada right now would be an understatement. Monsanto estimates the current annual acreage ranges between 300,000 and 500,000 acres, much of it confined to southern Manitoba. That’s barely a sliver of the 16.64 million acres of canola that Prairie farmers were expected to seed this spring.

For Monsanto’s 10-million-acre dream to come true, corn would have to expand far beyond a small corner in Manitoba. This raises an important question: where would all that corn be grown?

“I would say the logical area for it is in the southern half of our growing areas where the combination of shorter season varieties and time to maturity could result in reasonably sized production,” says Bruce Burnett, a CWB weather and crop specialist.

The main reason why southern Manitoba is home to most of the corn currently grown in the West is climate. The region generally receives more precipitation and has a longer growing season. Take corn out to semi-arid regions in Saskatchewan and Alberta and you could see it looking like onions shrivelling in the dry ground, especially this year when the western Prairies experienced some of their driest growing conditions in years.

“Corn will not perform well under drought conditions. There’s no doubt about it,” says Burnett. “We can’t become the new Corn Belt without reliable rainfall.”

Climatologists generally agree the long-term trend on the Prairies is toward warmer weather and a longer growing season by perhaps 10 to 15 days. But the outlook for moisture is less certain. “We shouldn’t expect a large increase in the amount of precipitation we have, even with a longer growing season,” Burnett says.

That said, Burnett acknowledges Monsanto and DuPont are both very market-savvy companies and may be on to something if they are willing to plow millions of dollars into developing corn hybrids suitable for all of Western Canada, not just part of it.

Monsanto’s Dan Wright says he is “extremely excited” about the progress his company has seen in its corn program after only two years. Wright says Monsanto had nearly 90 test plots this year, with locations ranging from Manitoba’s Red River Valley (the heart of the province’s Corn Belt) to Saskatoon, down to Lethbridge, up to Edmonton and as far north as Grande Prairie, Peace River and “the edge of failure,” just to see if it’s possible.

While admitting this year’s drought was hard on Monsanto’s test plots, Wright says the company is making progress on lowering heat unit thresholds from 2150 to under 2100. A new variety released this year, DKC23-17RIB, is at 2075 heat units. Wright says the goal is to get down to 2000 heat units, which would be a breakthrough for an early hybrid.

Another goal is to produce hybrids consistently yielding 100 bushels an acre or more, generally considered the threshold for a commercial corn variety. Here, too, Monsanto is making progress, says Wright. “We’ve found lots of areas across Western Canada where we’ve put our test products in and said, you know what? We’re close.”

Morgan Cott, a field agronomist with the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, is skeptical about corn expanding into non-traditional areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta, despite shorter-season varieties. She believes most expansion will come from existing growers increasing their own acres.

“I would expect producers just to be growing more of their own acres, not necessarily growing much farther north or in areas that might not be great for corn,” says Cott.

“It wouldn’t be a quick growth geographically,” Cott believes. “It would be a slow sort of thing.”

However, Burnett believes corn could have a future outside Manitoba, depending on how effective companies are at getting varieties to yield well in a shorter growing season.

“You could conceivably grow it in a large portion of the Prairies if you got the length of the growing season short enough,” says Burnett. “(But) I don’t know whether you can do that with acceptable yield results for corn.”

Another factor to consider is frost. Even if prospects are favourable for expanding corn acres, Western Canada is not Iowa or Indiana.

The growing season is shorter. No matter how you cut it, corn takes longer to mature than cereals do and the threat of damage from an early frost is always real.

“You can see an increase in your growing season but if your climate still remains quite variable and you still occasionally get these frosts on August 20, that’s another thing to consider,” Burnett says.

Still another potential problem is the fact that corn is a high-residue row crop. As a result, it is not always suited to parts of the Prairies where minimum- and no-till cropping systems predominate. Breaking up corn residue after harvest can require special tillage equipment.

Would corn force producers to open up no-till systems? It’s a question worth asking.

“There are a lot of areas that are no-till production as you move farther west,” says Pam de Rocquigny, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development cereal crop specialist. “How does corn fit into that in terms of a high-residue crop where we need to incorporate that residue?”

But you never say never when it comes to new crops on the Prairies. There was a time when growing winter wheat in Western Canada was considered doubtful. No one expected Saskatchewan to become one of the world’s largest lentil producers. And look what happened with soybeans, which used to be the preserve of the U.S. Midwest but now are the third-largest crop in Manitoba.

“There are risks, but there are risks with growing any type of crop,” says de Rocquigny. “It’s up to each individual producer to pencil out what makes sense for their farming operation.”

This article was originally published as “Moving North” in the September 2015 issue of the Corn Guide.

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