Crops weeks behind; late frost on wish list

Last year the first killing frost in Saskatchewan was Oct. 2, but ‘I don’t see that happening’ this year, says weather analyst

Hot weather in July and early August helped advance crop development across the Canadian Prairies but maturity is still well behind the normal pace throughout much of the region.

Doug Chorney was hoping to combine winter wheat on his farm near East Selkirk, Man., by Aug. 10, which is about 10 days later than he would usually be in his fields.

His crop was off to a great start last fall but with the cool, wet spring it took longer to emerge from dormancy and that set back development.

Chorney estimates three-quarters of the crops in the province are 10 days to two weeks behind schedule.

The remaining 25 percent in the southwestern corner are in far worse shape. He toured fields in that region in mid-July.

“They had tiny little canola crops that were a month behind where they should be and cereal crops were also very small,” said the president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

Chorney is hoping for “a big, open fall,” especially for the province’s soybean crops, which are not nearly as advanced as they should be.

“They’re just green and flowering now and pods are barely beginning to form,” he said.

“We’ll be in dire conditions if it freezes early so we’re sure hoping for a repeat of the last many years of late frosts.”

The normal first fall frost date for the vast majority of the Prairies falls somewhere in the Sept. 9 to Sept. 21 range.

The last few years there have been light frosts toward the end of that time frame but nothing that caused serious damage.

In Saskatchewan, the first killing frost of 2013 arrived on Oct. 2. The year before that it was Oct. 4.

Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc., doesn’t expect a fall that open this year.

“It’s not going to be like these other years we’ve had in the past where we go weeks beyond (normal). I don’t see that happening,” he said.

But he does believe the first killing frost will arrive later than usual in Manitoba and eastern and southern Saskatchewan. It may be delayed by a week to 10 days in those regions.

“It could be really helpful,” said Lerner.

“The problem is the reason why the frost and freeze is going to be late is because we’re going to have cloudiness around and some rain, so the crops may not be as mature as we want them to be.”

Frost is expected to arrive slightly earlier than normal in northern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan, so farmers in those areas may have to rush harvest.

Crops are anywhere from two days to several weeks behind in Saskatchewan, said Shannon Friesen, cropping management specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture.

“A lot of the earlier-seeded stuff is maybe right on schedule or just slightly behind,” she said.

Crops are progressing nicely in west-central Saskatchewan due in part to warm July weather.

“Things have jumped. Flowering was quick. Heading out was quick,” said Friesen.

“Things have caught up but we certainly could use a couple of extra weeks of some frost-free weather.”

Crops are still seriously delayed in some of the eastern and northern regions of the province.

She estimates half of the crops in Saskatchewan are about one week behind. Hot and dry weather is required to help them ripen.

Crop maturity is a mixed bag in Alberta, said Harry Brook, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture.

“The Peace region is drier than a popcorn fart. They needed some moisture and they haven’t had hardly any since it was seeded,” he said.

“Those crops are going backwards and because of drought conditions they will mature quicker, so (Peace farmers) might be the first ones out in the field to combine.”

Crops are in much better shape in central and southern Alberta but those regions need some rain to finish them off.

Brook has seen canola crops in his travels that are at least two weeks behind where they should be.

“I am concerned because to get most of those crops to maturity is going to take frost-free probably into late September if not early October,” he said.

If a frost hit in the first week of September he believes 20 to 30 percent of the canola and cereal crops would not be ripe enough to withstand damage.

Early frosts can have huge financial ramifications, especially for a delayed crop.

A severe frost on Aug. 20, 2004 caused downgrading to an estimated one-third of the prairie canola crop.

Saskatchewan Crop Insurance paid out $392 million that year due to downgrading of crop quality.

Brook said insurance wouldn’t fully cover the $350 to $400 per acre farmers have invested in this year’s canola crop.

“I keep thinking about (an August frost). If it happened once it can happen again and I’m just praying and hoping it doesn’t because that would truly be devastating,” he said.