Chapter 14

Magic Beans

It’s tempting to view the Manitoba crop mix of the last 50 years as a thrilling race of thoroughbreds, each advancing with power and strength, amid keen competition.

Wheat, of course, has been in command since before Manitoba began. It looked like it would never relinquish its commanding lead. In recent years, canola has taken over the lead by a slim margin, a remarkable achievement for Canada’s oilseed as indicated in an earlier chapter.

Meanwhile, flax and barley, which were always good, reliable competitors. By 2015, they were complemented by the advancement of corn.

Oats, traditional equine feed until the 1940s, has also experienced a resurgence.

But the true dark horse might have been soybeans, now trailing only wheat and canola among top-selling crops.

Here’s a look at Manitoba’s crop success in 2020, with an emphasis on soybeans.

Canola has certainly gained ground in popularity, but it has not dethroned wheat when it comes to seeded acreage.

“Wheat, to me, is like the old soldier that’s still around,” said David Simonot, crops specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. “Wheat is still a very competitive crop. It’s typically planted on as many, if not more acres, as canola.”

Wheat’s unique advantage, compared to virtually every other crop, is its status as a staple food around the world, so the market is huge.  

Fortunately, wheat is a crop choice that is particularly well-suited to Manitoba’s often challenging climate.

“You have frost resistance in spring. You plant your wheat on May 10. It might still freeze, but wheat will recover from that and produce a perfectly fine crop,” said Simonot.  “Wheat is also harvested earlier. So, it’s sort of a fallback crop. If you don’t know what else to plant, plant wheat. It’s a lower risk crop that will produce reasonably well, without a lot of fussing.”

Durum wheat, however, has vanished from western Manitoba, the fault of fusarium head blight, and moved to the drier climate, and brown and dark brown soils, on the west side of Saskatchewan.

Canola and its transformational success has already been discussed at great length in these pages. Its average yields have shot up from 20 bushels per acre in 1978 – 1982, to 42 bushels per acre in recent years. Since 2014, Manitoba farmers have planted more canola than wheat in seven straight years. But the other oilseed—flax—has dropped off. Manitoba farmers were still growing a million acres of flax in the late 1980s, putting it on par with canola at the time. Flax was down to 50,000 acres in Manitoba in 2020, and less than 40,000 acres in 2018.

Though flax has not kept up economically,  it showed definite signs of life in late 2020 and early 2021, when the price soared to over $20 per bushel, according to Simonot. He said flax is best suited to the Interlake and northwestern Manitoba, where the land is less likely to support corn or soybeans. For decades, flax has sustained an average annual yield of 25 bushels per acre, driven by the crop’s value to the thriving nutraceutical market.

Popular with horses and humans, oats have enjoyed a resurgence. In 2020, Manitoba farmers planted 650,000 acres of oats. Even better, yields have expanded over time. From 1908 – 1912, when oats were primarily grown for the equine sector, average yields were 17 bushels per acre. From 2018 through 2020, average yields were 107 bushels per acre.

Barley acreage in Manitoba has declined in stature over time. It was the province’s second biggest crop until the emergence of canola. It has since been overtaken by corn. A century ago, it was running between one and 2.5 million acres per year, and sustained that level—except throughout the 1960s, where it saw a brief decline in acres—but started to significantly drop in the mid-2000s. It last topped a million acres in 2007. Just 383,000 acres were seeded in 2020, up slightly from 336,000 acres from the year prior.

Part of the reason is the concentration of feedlots in Alberta. That makes distance to market a factor for Manitoba and even parts of Saskatchewan. Fusarium head blight is also a big part of the story. Barley is very susceptible to the fungus, which is disagreeable to hogs, so it doesn’t work as hog feed. Considering the pork sector is one of the largest end users of Manitoba’s grain feed production, this susceptibility diminished demand.

Perhaps, it is corn to the rescue. Grain corn has crept up into the 300,000 – 450,000-acre range in recent years, from under 100,000 acres before 2000, except for a flirtation in the dry 1980s. Manitoba is now the only province in Western Canada that is growing grain corn regularly. Most of the advance can be attributed to newer varieties expanding the growing region into Manitoba. Corn is also in strong demand as a feed for Manitoba’s livestock sector and the Husky Energy ethanol plant in Minnedosa. Manitoba currently imports grain corn from the U.S., and that means a premium for local growers because the local prices are the price of corn in the U.S., plus the transportation cost to import. Manitoba corn’s slow but steady growth pattern is expected to continue, although its production requires some specialized equipment.

A field crop that flies under the radar is tame hay, produced as a direct input for the beef, bison, sheep and dairy sectors. Tame hay isn’t usually thought of as one of the major crops but if it was, it would rank after only canola and wheat in planted acres.

This brings us to soybeans, the rising star among Manitoba crops since 2010. It always seemed like soybeans would make a good crop for Manitoba, but previous attempts were unsuccessful. One of those attempts was in the 1980s by Joe Tsukamoto, a famed agronomist with Manitoba Agriculture in Brandon. Tsukamoto, who was inducted posthumously into the Manitoba Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2007, made a tremendous contribution to crop diversification in Manitoba, promoting the production of special crops such as sunflowers, faba beans, buckwheat, lentils, peas and edible beans. His experiments with soybeans involved a variety called Natto grown for the Asian food market but he couldn’t make it work in Manitoba’s climate.

Red River Valley farmers gave them another go, starting in about 2000. That year, 20,000 acres were planted of two short-season variants from North Dakota called McCall and Glacier. They were conventional soybeans for the food market with conventional weed control. The first glyphosate-tolerant varieties were grown in about 2003 and 2004 and were also successful.

“It was really a story of farmers taking a risk and planting some of these short-season soybean varieties,” said Daryl Domitruk, executive director of the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers.

That got the industry’s attention and private breeding companies, such as NorthStar Genetics and Monsanto, started to develop new early-maturing varieties specifically for Manitoba, according to Dennis Lange, a Morden-based pulse specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.

It was solely a Red River Valley crop for the first decade until about 2010, when emerged from the valley and into central and western Manitoba. In 2011, the split was 95 per cent east of Portage la Prairie, and five per cent west. Today, soybeans are grown virtually everywhere in Manitoba, as far north as Swan River. In 2020, 53 per cent of the soybeans were grown east of Portage la Prairie, and 47 per cent west, said Lange.

Even though soybeans were introduced into western Manitoba only in 2011, by 2017, farmers had planted a whopping 2.3 million acres. Soybean acreage was growing by 30 – 40 per cent per year over a stretch. It has dropped back slightly, to just over 1.1 million acres in 2020, due to early frost events and dry growing conditions in recent years as soybeans don’t tolerate drought well. The first dry year was 2017 and yields fell about 20 per cent. Meanwhile, canola and wheat did just fine, even setting some records, “so, soybean growers pushed the pause button,” Simonot said.

Despite the dryness, farmers still did well in 2020, recording average to slightly above average yields for soybeans. In 2020, the provincial average was 38 bushels per acre, but it ranged from the mid-30s up to 45 bushels per acre. Some growers got 50, as high as 60 bushels per acre, said Lange. “A large part of that success was timely rains in late July and August,” he said.

The RM of Rhineland in the Red River Valley recorded an average of 44 bushels per acre on 20,000 acres, versus 36 bushels per acre in the RM of Dauphin on 23,500 acres.

While soybeans have made major inroads into Manitoba, producers are challenged to meet the yields of growing areas such Ontario, and across the U.S. and South America, all of which have climate advantages. Brazil is the largest producer in the world, followed by the U.S. and then Argentina.

Then why grow it? On the marketing side, soybeans are such a large global crop and there’s always room in the market, said Domitruk.

“We could ask the same thing about wheat because lots of places grow way higher yields of wheat,” said Domitruk. “And if there is a weather problem in one of those dominant soybean-growing centres, the price goes boom, and a fringe growing area like Canada can take advantage.”

Agronomic considerations are where soybeans really get a blue ribbon. First, the crop likes the wetter prairie that Manitoba offers. As well, the soybean plant produces its own nitrogen, creating a tremendous cost-saving in fertilizer. It’s also a pay-it-forward crop, courteously leaving nitrogen in the soil for the next crop.

To date, Manitoba has had few pest problems with soybeans. It’s also Roundup-ready, the way Manitoba canola varieties are Liberty-tolerant. That not only controls weeds, but it also reduces tillage practices. Soybeans allow farmers different seeding and harvesting dates, which helps keep weeds off-balance. Soybeans are planted later, after other spring crops, either at the end of May or the start of June when the ground is warm. Because they are somewhat frost-tolerant, they can be harvested in October, similar to late-season crops, such as corn and sunflowers.

“Some crops are introduced and experimented with just because we think they’ll be purely more profitable, but soybeans are a pretty significant diversification play,” said Simonot. “Soybeans can do well in a year when wheat performs poorly, or vice versa, hedging a farm’s risk. You’re not picking soybeans just because they’re a winner every year. You’re picking them because they’re different from wheat.”

Domitruk has a similar view of corn.

“If we don’t grow those crops, what else would we grow?” he said. “Compared to 50 years ago, Manitoba and Saskatchewan (which has gone big into pulse crops) have one of the most diverse crop rotations in the world. All you need to do is drive to Minnesota and you’ll see it’s basically corn and soybeans, whereas here we’re growing six or seven crops.”

That’s out of necessity, Domitruk said. The U.S. Senate gives farm states, like North Dakota, the same clout as more populous states like California.

“Our farmers aren’t supported cash-wise by the government like they are in the U.S. Our farmers diversify risk out of necessity. If you can grow soybeans, and grow them reasonably well and make a profit, there’s no reason not to.”

As for the future of soybeans in Manitoba?

“I think we’re still in the early days of soybean adoption,” said Simonot.  

Domitruk agreed Manitoba’s experience with soybeans “is still a short history.”

“If it becomes a staple, then farmers will grow it wet or dry,” said Domitruk. “Right now, we don’t know that. For sure, we know that, in wet years, it’s probably your best crop. In dry years, it’s one of your lower crops.”

The challenge with soybeans will be to get a consistent critical mass of production that will convince a crusher to set up shop here, said Domitruk. Local processing would improve prices. That will take about two million acres per year, year in and year out, he said. Farmers aren’t there yet.

“We’re still in that feeling out stage,” said Domitruk. “What is our sustainable acreage? We don’t know that yet. It has to get up more because most crushing plants operate on economies of scale.”