Farmers fear dry will turn to drought

Prairie farmers have gone from flood to fire.

After several wet rainy springs, it is now extremely dry in most places, even as some still struggle with wet seeding conditions.

“It’s absolutely dry,” said Trevor Hadwen, agroclimate specialist at Agriculture Canada.

“It has benefitted the farmers in terms of rapidly seeding, but now that most farmers are being a little bit further ahead, they’re starting to get concerned about the soil moisture and germination.”

Saskatchewan and Alberta issued widespread fire bans last week, including agricultural areas.

In Saskatchewan, it’s up to municipalities to issue bans throughout the agricultural region, and the hot, windy conditions prompted some to do that.

Fires on the forest fringe forced evacuations of 23 people near Love, Sask., last weekend. That fire had not yet been contained as of early May 25.

Officials said grass fires have been a concern throughout the south all spring, and they worried about volunteer firefighters becoming overwhelmed by the work.

Curtis Lee, director of wildfire management operations, said May 25 that there had been 224 fires in the province this year, up from 125 in 2014.

All but four were caused by human activity.

Provincial officials said the southern landscape dries out more quickly than the northern forest.

“In the agricultural area, we’re talking about fine fuels — grasses and small shrubs,” said Steve Roberts, executive director of wildfire management.

“They drought extremely quickly and as soon as there’s a little bit of breeze and low humidity, their hazard will increase rapidly, even after a couple days of rain. The forest dries out slowly.… The south catches up to the north fairly quickly.”

The fuel load is high. One fire that began near Turtle Lake May 21 covered 1,100 acres by the next morning.

Hadwen said farmers should be careful when moving equipment because they could accidentally spark fires.

“All that litter layer and everything that’s in the top little bit of the soil is fairly dry, and the winds and the heat that we’ve received in the last weekend here certainly have continued that process of drying things out,” he said.

Parts of the Prairies are in what would be called a meteorological drought in that they haven’t received rain for a long time.

Hadwen said some places haven’t received precipitation for 25 days.

“We’re certainly not in an agricultural drought yet,” he said.

Southern Manitoba was in drought until rain last week, and parts of Alberta are getting close. Hadwen said an assessment to be done at the end of the month will likely find most of the Prairies in an abnormally dry situation.

Dale Wiebe, seeding into recently broken land at La Crete, Alta., said it was the fourth dry year in a row and the driest in his 20 years of farming.

The area had yet to receive a good soaker rain as of May 22, and last year was dry, too. Wiebe has started to worry about the newly seeded crop.

“It’s all going to depend on how much moisture we get from now on,” he said from his tractor.

He is seeding all his crops one inch deep into moisture to help them germinate and has cut back fertilizer by 40 percent.

“I’m not confident in putting it down,” he said.

Wiebe also increased his crop insurance coverage to 80 percent.

Tara Mulhern Davidson said the Ponteix and Meyronne areas of southwestern Saskatchewan, which is typically the driest part of the province, received 13 millimetres of rain 10 days ago and is “OK.”

“But Swift Current is dry, Lac Pelletier, very dry, Tompkins, Piapot, Gull Lake, all dry.”

She said a friend has already sold his entire replacement heifer herd because of the dry conditions.

Hadwen said livestock producers likely aren’t too concerned about water supplies, but grass growth will suffer soon without rain.

He said the entire region needs timely rain to sustain vegetation, but no one wants heavy flood rains.

Meanwhile, he said El Nino is finally starting to strengthen. On the Prairies, that tends to mean drier, warmer weather. Farmers should be aware of that trend, he said.

Environment Canada will issue seasonal forecasts next week, and Hadwen said those will likely change to factor in El Nino.

He also said it’s too soon to sound alarm bells of impending drought. There’s lots of time for the situation to change.

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