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Published May 17, 2011, 10:53 AM

Helicopters used to seed wet fields in Canada

It’s wet north of the border, too — so wet that some producers there are using helicopters in planting.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

It’s wet north of the border, too — so wet that some producers there are using helicopters in planting.

Canadian farmers are struggling with excess moisture and delayed planting, just like their counterparts in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

As of early May, Canadian farmers had planted “virtually nothing,” says James Loewen, grain manager with Bunge Canada in Altona, Manitoba.

Normally, farmers on the Canadian prairie have planted about 10 percent of their acres by early May, says Bruce Burnett, director of weather and market analysis for the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

This year, planting has been limited to a small number of acres conductive to early planting, he says.

The slow start isn’t surprising, given moisture conditions going into the spring.

“We knew we wouldn’t be planting early,” Burnett says.

But rains and a late-season blizzard in parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have put planting even further behind, he says.

With the planting pace already two to three weeks behind normal, some farmers could end up switching to crops that can be planted safely a bit later. Weather conditions the next few weeks will determine whether that happens, officials say.

Statistics Canada, after interviewing farmers in March, predicted late last month that Canadian producers will plant a lot of wheat and canola.

Statistics Canada pegged 2011 canola acreage at 19.2 million, up from 16.8 million a year ago.

Canadian wheat acreage this year was estimated at 24.7 million acres, up from 21.1 million last year.

Innovative planting

Some farmers are looking for innovative ways to plant, including using helicopters instead of tractors.

Provincial Helicopters Ltd. of Luc du Bonnet, Manitoba, is working with farmers to plant canola this spring, says John Gibson, the company’s president and chief pilot.

Canola doesn’t need to be planted as deeply as some other crops, so seeding canola from a helicopter is relatively feasible.

The company first planted canola from a helicopter, as an experiment, five years ago, he says.

Provincial Helicopters provides a wide range of aerial services, including fighting forest fires and airlifting construction equipment. The company has been looking for ways to expand the use of helicopters in agriculture.

To plant canola, Provincial Helicopters uses a specially designed planter originally developed for reforestation. The system utilizes a rotary distributor that propels seed downward to the field.

The helicopter flies 10 feet off the ground at 60 mph, with each pass covering a 50-foot swath. Roughly 2.2 acres per minute are planted.

The company charges $14 per acre to seed by helicopter.

“It’s not cheap,” in part because of the cost of transporting the helicopter to the planting job, Gibson says.

Helicopters have their limitations in seeding, he says.

“Conditions have to be bang-on correct,” he says.

Close market connections

Canadian farmers and their U.S. counterparts grow many of the same crops, including durum, flax and canola. So what happens in Canada can have a big impact on the price of some crops grown by U.S. farmers.

Last spring, for instance, U.S. flax prices — North Dakota is the nation’s dominant producer of the crop — shot higher after heavy May rains in Canada prevented many flax fields from being planted.

Those May rains contributed heavily to planting problems that left an estimated 10 million acres unseeded last year in western Canada.

It’s too early to predict how unplanted acreage this year will end up compared with a year ago, Burnett says.