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Canada's Potential: New Cornhuskers

Last year, Monsanto Canada announced a $100 million corn-breeding effort over the next decade with the potential to explode western Canada’s corn acreage from about 300,000 to 500,000 acres to as many as 10 million by 2025. 

They aren’t alone. DuPont Pioneer has similar goals. Already, Manitoba’s growth outpaces any U.S. state, nearly tripling in 14 years by 2013. (Like the rest of Canada, the province’s production is down this year to 254,436 acres of corn planted for grain. All of Canada’s corn acreage is off 16% vs. a U.S. cutback of 4%.)

Is a goal of 10 million new acres realistic? After all, that’s what the entire U.S. added in corn production in the past decade, fueled by an ethanol boom that roughly doubled domestic corn usage. It’s like adding another Nebraska. The Cornhusker state is third in the U.S. in corn acres.

The short answer is technically, yes, it’s doable. The economics are less certain, though. 

“We don’t have a longer season. What’s making the corn happen is the genetics,” says Myron Krahn, who with his father farms about 3,000 acres at Carman, Manitoba.

Ten years ago, a typical yield was 110 bushels. Last year, it hit a record 130 average for the province, with some fields at 90 and others at 150 to 160, “which is incredible to us,” he says.

“Not only are they maturing earlier, but also the yield is better,” he says. Most corn planted in Manitoba runs from about 74 to 82 days to maturity.

Corn growers must race against the typical killing freeze date of September 20 to 25. Also, corn doesn’t dry well in the field much after that, he says, potentially adding to drying costs. 

The race to black layer drives breeding efforts, too. Progress in boosting the yields of short-season varieties makes scientists like Marcelo Carena of North Dakota State University optimistic.

“Manitoba is next and will be the next North Dakota,” he says. 

Steven King, an Ontario-based scientist who leads DuPont Pioneer’s corn research for Canada, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, is also enthusiastic about western Canada’s potential. 

“It’s a very unique opportunity to basically build a corn-breeding program from the ground up,” he says. Like Monsanto, his company is breeding corn in western Canada’s conditions, with a breeding center that opened in 2009 in Carman, Manitoba. 

“In other areas, the number one thing you’re selecting for is yield. In this area, you’re selecting for maturity,” he says. Yield is less important than reaching maturity. Without that, “the grower doesn’t have a crop to harvest.”

Corn currently grown in the province is about 77 days to maturity. “That’s too long of a season for most of western Canada,” King says. “In order to open up western Canada, we have to get to drydown in under 72 days before the first killing frost. That’s a challenge.” 

The company currently has mulitple experimental hybrids that mature in  under 72 days. “If these hybrids continue to perform this year in large-scale testing, they could be available to customers next year,” King says.

The breeding program is working on even shorter-season hybrids (of 65 to 72 days) by selecting for earlier flowering and hitting black layer and drydown before a killing frost in the second week of September. 

“We believe that it’s quite conceivable that, with these earlier-maturing products, western Canada could produce up to 10 million acres of corn every year,” he says. Many in his company think that’s possible in a decade. King’s own estimate is more conservative – perhaps by 2030 or 2035.  

Economics will be the other big factor. As Krahn points out, getting into corn is a big investment for many, requiring a new planter, combine corn head, and, ideally, bins and a dryer.  “That’s the limiting factor, the cost of corn for producers who are used to wheat and oats, where all they need is a combine and a swather,” he says.

To encourage growers to try corn, Pioneer is lending corn planters, says King.

Krahn, who is president of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, has increased corn acres, dropping dry beans. Still, only a fourth of his farm grows corn; 45% is planted to soybeans with the rest split between spring wheat, oats, and canola. “In terms of profitability, soybeans are the most profitable,” he says.

At the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, agricultural economist Derek Brewin admits to skepticism about that 10 million-acre expansion of corn in Canada’s Prairie Provinces.

Premiums for high-quality spring wheat work against it. “If we see ethanol not be the driver, then wheat would be stronger than corn,” he says.

Working in corn’s favor is better breeding than for wheat, he says. Manitoba’s hog industry and Alberta’s cattle feedlots could use more Canadian corn, which could replace some barley, canola, and wheat acres near the U.S. border.

“We’ve got a lot of potential to feed animals,” he says.

Corn also remains risky. Krahn vividly remembers the August 19 frost of 2005. “Pretty much the whole province disked it all down that year,” he says.

Still, with local rents running from $100 to $120 an acre and land costing about $5,000, Manitoba growers can compete with yields that would seem low in the corn belt.

Compared with other crops, “there’s more upside on the corn,” says Krahn. “If we happen to hit 150 bushels, then we’re making money at $4.”

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