It’s a mud bog harvest in Ontario’s northwest region

Excessive rain has kept farmers out of fields

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The Rainy River has lived up to its name this harvest. About 460 millimetres of rain since Aug. 19 have made for a long, muddy and frustrating harvest in this farming district 400 kilometres west of Thunder Bay.

Why it matters:

There’s work being done to attract more farmers to northern Ontario and more interest in farming conditions there.

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“Oct. 25 was only our fifth sunny day since August and we couldn’t combine because the fields were too wet,” says Timo Brielmann, who crops 6,600 acres with his father, Amos. They grow wheat, canola, soybeans, corn and ryegrass. “We’re usually done by now.”

Their 2,200 acres of canola are done, and results were positive.

“Practically all the canola yielded in the 60s (bushels per acre),” Amos says, and their best field had an average yield of 63 bu./acre. They grew BASF InVigor varieties with pod-shatter tolerance so they can leave the crop standing for straight combining.

In Western Canada, most canola is swathed into windrows, but straight combining is gaining traction. This is an advantage in a wet harvest because operators can cut high and the seeds themselves stay relatively dry.

Soybeans are another story. Most of them were still standing as of Oct. 25, and combining is no fun in these conditions.

“It’s a daily thing to clean the mud out of the header,” Timo says. “If the header dips in the water, the whole combine can be full of mud.”

The Brielmanns have tracks on their combines and grain cart tractor, which helps in soft fields. Tile drainage also makes a big difference.

“We don’t farm a field if it’s not tiled,” Timo says, but with that much rain, the drains can’t keep up. “Tiling doesn’t make the fields invincible.”

Kim Jo Bliss works as a research technician for the University of Guelph’s Emo Agriculture Research Station in the nearby town of Emo. Her job is to run variety trials and research plots, but she also does a lot of extension work. In this small and isolated farming area, she has a good pulse on the mood.

“A lot of guys are pretty blue with the way the harvest has been, and they’re not normally like that,” she says. “But anywhere you go with a combine or tractor, it’s a big mess.”

Rainfall varied across the district, she adds, with some areas getting more than 460 mm.

“The amount we have received since the middle of August is equal to the normal amount in our entire growing season, May 1 to Oct. 31,” she says.

The Rainy River District has about 160,000 farmed acres, according to 2016 census figures, with 53,000 in cropland, mostly hay, and more than 100,000 acres of pasture.

Cattle production, mostly beef with some dairy, is the primary agriculture business, but more land is being converted to annual crops. Of the cropland acres, Bliss estimates that about 20,000 are annual cash crops with more acres converted every year.

The challenge with annual crops in the Rainy River District is not the climate (the season is about two weeks longer than New Liskeard’s, Bliss says, and similar to southern Manitoba) or the weather, despite this fall’s excess rain.

The biggest challenge is transportation. While the rails to the Port of Thunder Bay run straight through the district, farmers don’t have a local elevator and can’t load their own railcars. So everything goes by truck, and the distances are vast.

The Brielmanns send their soybeans and wheat to the Richardson port terminal at Thunder Bay, an 850 kilometre round trip. (The Richardson terminal is the only one that can unload trucks.)

At that distance, their trucker can make only one 44-tonne delivery per day. Their canola goes to the CHS processing facility at Hallock, Minnesota. Trucking into the United States requires extra paperwork and licensing, and weight restrictions limit payload to 23 tonnes. That round trip is around 450 km, so they can make two trips per day, but with weight restrictions, the daily haul isn’t much more than their one trip to Thunder Bay. Corn goes to feed mills around Winnipeg, which is about the same distance as Thunder Bay. They have a truck on the road almost every day of the year.

Because delivering grain is such a bottleneck, the Brielmanns need massive on-farm storage. Their big bin-yard has four 72,000-bushel bins, six 30,000-bushel bins and a continuous flow drying system running off the natural gas grid. The dryer has been essential this year because most everything is coming off tough. Canola was as high as 19 per cent moisture (‘dry’ is 10 per cent) and the soybeans they tried to combine on Oct. 25 were 18.5 per cent.

Brielmanns’ soybean yields, for the fields harvested so far, have averaged 42 to 45 bu./acre on a dry basis.

“We like to have them close to 50, but they won’t be this year,” Amos says. Corn is almost ready and looking good.

“We budget for 150 bu./acre yield, and had a 165 average last year,” Timo says.

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