Wet, cool spring threatens prairie pea acres

Yields are optimal if planted before mid-May, but by May 8, Saskatchewan growers had 11% of the crop in, compared to 35%last year

Field pea plantings in Western Canada are likely to be lower this year than they were in 2016.


How much lower is the million dollar question.


Last month, Statistics Canada released its 2017 seeding estimates, suggesting that field pea plantings would drop by 250,000 acres this year.


The agency’s projected pea area is 3.989 million acres for 2017, down from 4.239 million acres last year.


However, a late start to seeding could push the figure even lower.


Vicki Dutton, a pea producer and pedigreed seed grower from Paynton, Sask., says a wet and delayed start to spring seeding could have a significant impact on Saskatchewan’s pea plantings.


“Based on the lateness of this year, I’m not sure that we can predict pea acreage until it’s actually in the ground,” said Dutton.


“I think there’s going to be a certain element of decision making that may happen just because of the weather.”


Added Mark Olson, unit head for pulse crops at Alberta Agriculture: “It will be down for sure. It’s just a matter of how much down.… I know initially Stats Canada had talked about a two percent de-crease in pea acreage for Alberta, but as it gets later and later, we know that some guys are thinking about switching to other crops.”


Peas have become known over the past decade or two as the crop that goes in first. They are relatively tolerant to cold soil and spring frost damage. 


Yields can usually be optimized if peas are planted before mid-May, and flowering begins in late June or early July.


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Under normal conditions, most pea varieties will start to flower around 45 days after they’ve been planted. Many pea growers have come to appreciate the crop’s early harvestability. They are typically in the bin before any other crop is ready to combine.


However, seeding progress in key pea producing regions is well behind schedule this year.


As of May 8, only 11 percent of Saskatchewan’s 2017 crop had been seeded, compared to 35 percent at the same time last year and 34 percent in 2015.


Progress was even further behind in the province’s most important pea growing regions, ranging from one to four percent in Saskatchewan crop districts 5A, 5B, 6A, 6B, 7A, 7B, 8A, 8B, 9A and 9B after the first week of May.


Growers in northeastern Alberta will be particularly hard pressed to get pulse crops seeded in a timely fashion this year, said Olson.


Fababean acres will be down significantly, and the window for pea plantings is also closing quickly.


“What a lot of guys use as a guideline is a cutoff (date) around the 20th of May,” he said.


“We do have the occasional grower that will seed peas later than that, but the research is very clear, and I think the farmers’ experience is very clear — that is, you seed later … you can run into (problems) on the other end and lower yields for sure.”


Dutton said some producers in her area said they might take peas out of the rotation if seeding operations run too far behind schedule.


She’s been encouraging growers instead to consider the flexibility of peas and use it to their advantage.


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“Peas are a 93-day crop,” she said.


“They’re actually one of the most versatile tools in your seeding toolbox when it comes to timing of seeding. 


“On our farm, we find peas to be that crop that we can move around to suit the spring.… If the spring gets late, we will tend to put in our later maturing crops first and move our peas a little further out. Because of their early maturity, they will still come in in August, even if you seed them in the third week of May, as a rule.”


Dale Risula, a special crops specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said the optimal window for seeding peas is closing.


“Over the past few years … we’ve come to realize that perhaps peas are best sown from mid-April to mid-May. That’s the timing that’s highly recommended,” Risula said.


“When peas start to flower, often times that flowering takes place during the month of July when temperatures can get up to 29 C or higher, and because pea flowers are very, very sensitive to high heat, they will abort, so that can have a direct impact on yield.”


Wet soil conditions that are prevalent across much of the northern grain belt could also have a bearing on pea plantings this year, Risula said.


Topsoil moisture conditions are rated as adequate to surplus across almost the entire Saskatchewan pea producing area.


Aphanomyces and other root diseases associated with wet soil conditions have taken a toll on pea productivity over the past few years. Both Risula and Dutton said pea growers should avoid planting peas into wet soil.


Fields that are wet should be given time to dry adequately. 


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“Certainly wet soil, as we see them right now, are a problem, so waiting for soils to dry out a bit may not be a bad idea for a pea producer.”