FOLLOWING four or five good years, the beef cattle industry is once more struggling in Canada, and it's been a difficult harvest.

From this year’s February highs, to the lows on September 9, the price of 550 lb steer calves dropped by 32%, the biggest fall in over 15 years.

In Alberta, where most of the feedlots are, one of the bigger ones has closed down permanently and others are mothballing their operations. Most have been losing from C$250 to C$450 per head and one big one here in Manitoba has had losses this year rumoured to be around C$4,000,000.

Calf prices are down on last year by C$1 per pound on bigger feeders, smaller calves by C$2 per pound, or around C$500 to C$600 per head. That would have meant a drop this year of more than C$50,000 for our 130-cow operation, so we might keep some of our calves back as we have lots of hay.

The old saying 'The best cure for high prices is high prices' is being proved, with industry gurus saying: “If the market follows patterns seen in previous cycles, prices may drop below the long-term trend and bottom out in two to four years.” Aye, live old horse and ye’ll get corn!

In our grain farming operation, we had a good early seeding but then too much rain in early summer and it was too soon for the crops to be able to handle the moisture. It gave us plenty of pasture but hampered the first cut hay and made crop spraying a nightmare, leaving lots of ruts.

Mid-summer was better, but late summer thunder and hail storms made a mess of some crops and crop insurance adjusters have been busy, one neighbour had a lightning strike which burnt the roof off of his swather and golfball size hail destroyed some of his crops as well as his roof shingles and the siding on his house.

Nevertheless, most folks are reporting good yields. We had decided this year that our cereals would be all red spring wheat, so as well as 560 acres of soyabeans, 900 acres of canola and 90 acres of corn/maize, we had about 1200 acres red spring wheat.

It was slow to dry down to 14% moisture which is maximum allowed and the buyers don’t like weather bleaching. Because of our extra acres, we couldn’t wait for it and we combined some as high as 20% which meant that our grain dryer had to run full tilt.

Mind you, if you wait until it’s 14% by the time you get it all done the wheat is coming off at 12% and you are losing quite a bit of weight, which helps to justify propane costs.

It’s always handy to get some crop sold off at harvest as it reduces storage and generates income. We have already hauled out 600 tonnes of red spring wheat and 250 tonnes of canola (or rape-seed) and some of our soyabeans were supposed to go in October straight off the combine, but our local Cargill elevator say they couldn't take it until November.

On October 1, 20 years ago (our first year in Manitoba) we awoke to find five inches of snow. This year, on October 1, the temperature was 21°C and on October 2 was 22°C – which allowed a good start to the soya, but on the October 3 and 4 we got 4.5-inches of rain.

The combine was parked for a week because although soyabeans stand upright, they have pods right down to the ground so you almost need to shave them off. If the soil is moist at all, it sticks to the underside of the header and pushes up, so you need the ground really dry.

We had only 100 acres left to do on Saturday and I thought we would be finished up in time for Jean and I going to Barbados for a holiday, but we had another 1.2 inches of rain so I left it to the 'boys' to finish it. However, more rain while I was away, meant that I was able to help get in the last of the harvest on my return two weeks later!

Grain yields have been slightly up on average, with hard red spring wheat running around 29 cwt per acre, rape/canola 24 cwt per acre and soyabeans around 25cwt.

When we started farming here in 1996, average yields were 20 cwt per acre of wheat and 12 cwt of canola. More than 90% of the canola grown here is either hybrid or GM, so with a 100% increase in yield over the last 20 years, you shouldn’t believe those who tell you that there are no yield increases with GM technology.

Prices, on the whole, are similar to last year with wheat making C$212 per tonne, canola slightly up at C$467 and soyabeans up from C$375 to C$415. With these prices and yields, this year gross returns per acre should be around $306 for wheat, C$580 for canola and C$395 for beans.

With variable input costs alone approaching C$200 per acre, margins will be tight. Mind you, we are enjoying cheaper fuel here – current prices at our local co-op being 68c (or 40p per litre for farm diesel and 47p for farm petrol).

Since 1996, there have been quite a few changes in the crops grown here. When we first grew winter wheat in 1999 hardly any was grown, now there are lots of acres, also lots of acres of soya, mostly replacing peas and lentils. Corn/maize was being grown for silage but now newer varieties are being harvested as grain.

* We were in Scotland in July for our golden wedding and had our three sons and daughters-in-law plus four grandchildren staying with us in the Northwest Castle Hotel, in Stranraer.

Because we are on both sides of the Atlantic, we are not together often so it was a special time for Jean and I. I also got to go to Stranraer Show for the first time since 1995, great to see so many friends, and also see that the show is still thriving, and old pal, William Stevenson and his son win the dairy section.