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Wheat board says cold winter and spring taking toll on western grain farmers

WINNIPEG -- Even for the hardiest Prairie farmer, 2009 is shaping up to be a big challenge. Following a bitterly cold winter and a spring that refused to warm up, farmers are looking at reduced production and low yields for virtually every crop. ...

WINNIPEG -- Even for the hardiest Prairie farmer, 2009 is shaping up to be a big challenge.

Following a bitterly cold winter and a spring that refused to warm up, farmers are looking at reduced production and low yields for virtually every crop.

"I've been farming for over 40 years and ... it was one of the longest and coldest springs that I can remember," Chuck Fossay, who grows canola, flax and other crops near Starbuck, Man., said Thursday.

"We just managed to finish seeding on Sunday, so we're about three weeks behind in seeding (and) the crop is very slow coming out of the ground 'cause of the cold weather."

Fossay, whose land was hit by frost even in June, is not alone.

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According to the Canadian Wheat Board's annual crop outlook issued Thursday, producers across the Prairies will be producing smaller crops.

"Most (areas) have had about half the available heat to grow a crop this year, which is quite dramatic," said Bruce Burnett, the board's director of weather and market analysis.

The board is forecasting a wheat, durum and barley crop of 29.7 million tonnes -- down almost 20 per cent from last year and well below the 33.9-million tonne average over the last five years.

The all-wheat yield is estimated at 33.4 bushels per acre -- the lowest level in seven years.

It's a similar story for other crops. Oat production is forecast to drop to 2.7 million tonnes this year from 4.0 million tonnes last year. Canola is expected to drop to 10.2 million tonnes from 12.6 million tonnes.

The main culprit is a weather system that has hung over Hudson Bay for months, Burnett said, dragging a mass of cool air down from the North.

"We do know that eventually it will warm up and the question is going to be when, and unfortunately very few people can answer that question right now."

Moisture has also been an issue. Saskatchewan and Alberta, along with western Manitoba, have been unusually dry, while eastern Manitoba was flooded in the spring.

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Bad weather has also caused a drop in production in other parts of the world, especially the United States and Argentina. World wheat production is forecast to drop 3.8 per cent this year to 656 million tonnes, although Burnett said it's hard to determine how much of an im-pact that will have on prices.

In the United States, some crop prices are expected to rise this year because of dwindling supplies of U.S. corn and soybeans. The reserve stocks have been depleted by grain exports, along with domestic demand for crop-based fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Canada, Prairie farmers are hoping for a return to normal weather, along with a dry, mild fall that might extend the season.

"It's been a difficult spring," Fossay said. "But I'm an optimist."

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