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Rail glitches steal farmers' joy at record Canadian harvests

Barley plantings in Canada this year could suffer from a hangover from the country's logistical wrangles which have thwarted farmers' chances of profiting from record harvests.

Growers had looked set for decent profits, despite lower international crop prices, after breaking production records in barley and canola last year, and achieving a record barley yield up one-third at 3.86 tonnes per hectare.

However, such hopes have been undermined by the logistical difficulties which have, according to some estimates, left some 3m tonnes of grain waiting to be moved from the Prairies, Canada's agricultural heartland, responsible for some 90% of domestic wheat production.

The backlog, in lowering demand for deliveries, has undermined farmgate prices and thereby return prospects.

"If you do not have the logistics, massive crops do not do anything for the farmer," said Darren Smith, Canada-based analyst at malting barley consultancy RMI Analytics.

"All it does is decrease margins."

Heavy discounts

The extent of the hardship is evident in the widening discount in prices that farmers are being offered, compared with values at port.

The Can$240 a tonne or so that feed barley is selling at in Vancouver would typically equate to a price of Can$200 a tonne, or a little bit more, on farm, once transport costs have been accounted for, Mr Smith told

But the price even delivered at the benchmark inland terminal of Lethbridge is currently at some Can$155 a tonne a discount of some Can$50 a tonne to where it would normally be expected besides being well below the average price of Can$180-210 a tonne forecast by the farm ministry for 2013-14.

Factored across the whole Canadian barley harvest, that represents Can$500m of value at risk, with more threatened too in the likes of canola and wheat, although these crops appear to be taking priority in transport to port given their greater importance in export programmes.

"Imagine the demurrage charges that have already been run up," Mr Smith said, with the Vancouver vessel line-up currently at 37, well ahead of typical levels, and with costs estimated at at least $10,000 a day.

'Knock-on effect'

The logistical hold-ups are in part down to the cold weather which has marked North America's start to 2014, and to the size of Canada's harvest of field crops this year, some 96.5m tonnes, of which 44.6m tonnes is expected to be exported in 2013-14, up some 3m tonnes year on year.

However, this extra volume is competing for railroad capacity with the extra oil volumes being transported, a consequence of growth in extraction from Canada's tar sands.

Data from Canadian Pacific show that wagonloads of industrial goods, including oil, carried by the rail operator rose 10% to 386,000 in the first nine months of last year, against a 2% increase to 317,000 in carloads taking grains.

"There is a huge increase in the amount of oil being carried by rail, and that has a knock-on effect on what's left for grains," Mr Smith said.

Furthermore, the "availability of capacity at Vancouver [port] has been a challenge for years".

'Full to the rafters'

The impact on agriculture looks to be huge domestic stocks at the close of the season.

"Anyone who can store 2013 barley will be full to the rafters in August," Mr Smith said, noting that farmers typically have about one year's storage.

The window between the end of winter, when transport will become easier, and the next harvest "will not be enough to manage all the material" and wind down farm inventories.

Among users too, "there will not be a maltster, feeder who is not absolutely full to the brim at the end of this crop year".

The prospect of large inventories looks likely to weigh on prices, and prompt a decline in barley sowings for a second year.

"Early 2014 estimates are for a drop of high single digits for barley plantings."

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