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Cold July revives frost fears

Are crops at risk? | Long-season crops need some warmer weather before summer ends

It feels like there’s been no summer this year, yet the crops look great in most areas.

However, farmers can’t get beyond the fear that frost is lurking underneath the unseasonable coolness, ready to snatch away this year’s bounty.

“We need either a real warm finish to the season or a long fall without frost,” said Myron Krahn, president of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association (MCGA).

“We need a lot of time in September without a frost.”

Farmers with corn, soybeans, sunflowers and other long-season crops are anxiously counting their heat units and checking out their crops to see what the long stretch of cool weather in July and into August has meant to their crops’ development.

“Frost isn’t too much of a risk for our canola, but I’m more worried about our soybean fields,” said Brian Chorney of Selkirk, Man.

The summer has been weird but OK for most traditional prairie crops such as wheat, barley, oats, canola and many special crops.

Most farmers and agronomists report that crops are looking good, but it doesn’t remove the anxiety that many are feeling with the unseasonable chill in the midsummer air.

“It was such a cool spring, then the temperature really cranked up at the start of July for a few days, which made everyone optimistic again, then so quickly summer seemed to end,” said Krahn.

For canola, the cool conditions have been almost perfect for promoting an extended and bountiful flowering season. Farmers in many areas report high pod counts and little of the heat blasting of flowers that reduced 2012’s yields.

Most small grains are also helped by coolness in midsummer, especially when they are in the reproductive stages.

“The growing conditions for most crops have been pretty good,” said Bruce Burnett of CWB.

“But we’d certainly like to see a hot, dry finish.”

Farmers and crop experts echo that sentiment. The cool weather has delayed crop development but also given them a better chance at big yields than would not have been possible without the coolness.

It will even be good for long-season crops such as corn as long as fall frost can be avoided.

“The cool weather is really good right now because we’re in pollination,” said MCGA agronomist Morgan Cott as she checked out a farmer’s field.

“We don’t want it too hot right now. This weather is actually very good.”

What farmers will need is an August at least as warm as usual and a September that doesn’t contain early frost.

Weather experts think they have a good shot at getting that kind of good luck.

Drew Lerner of World Weather Inc. and David Phillips of Environment Canada think farmers will likely see cool temperatures for the first 10 days to two weeks of August, but then a normally warm spell for the last two weeks of August.

And neither expects an early frost this year for the Prairies.

“I don’t believe we’ll have any freezes in August and that we could run a little bit late in parts of Sask­atchewan and Manitoba with our first frost and freeze this year,” said Lerner.

He expects Alberta and western Saskatchewan to have normal first frost dates.

Neither expert thought prairie crops should be particularly far behind normal development in most areas because the weather has actually been, in terms of seasonal averages, quite normal, no matter how unusually cold it may seem.

“Statistically, it will not be a remarkable year,” said Phillips about prairie weather since the spring.

“It will not be memorable in terms of how cold it is. It’ll just be a wash.”

The spring was late and cold, but June and the first week of July were hotter than average. Since then it has been cooler than average, but not by much, Phillips said.

The daytime temperatures have been 1 1/2 to two degrees below average, but the nighttime temperatures are actually slightly above average. Both are within the normal range.

Phillips said July has probably seemed particularly cool because it has been cloudier than normal. However, those cloudy skies also trap heat inside during the night, so growing degree days have not been significantly affected.

Lerner said July contained remarkably cold events in numerous places and almost no hot days, so the month seemed cold. However, it hasn’t been what a professional weather watcher would call cold.

“I really don’t think it’s been that far off normal,” he said.

Broker Mike Krueger of Fargo’s The Money Farm said crops in North Dakota generally look great, with small grains particularly enjoying the cool summer.

However, farmers are becoming increasingly anxious about frost, with corn and soybeans now making up a large percentage of eastern North Dakota cropland.

“We’re going to have to have a frost-free September,” said Krueger.

“If we have a frost in early to mid-September, we’re going to have issues with both corn and beans.”

Burnett said the cool spell that settled over the Prairies from early July to early August was well-timed if the Prairies had to experience a dose of cool weather.

“If this had come in late August, we could have had a lot of frost,” said Burnett.

“If we get back to normal weather in the second half of August, I don’t think there’s going to be any big problem with where we’re at right now.”

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