Praying for rain

Retired farmer Garry Nisbet has seen a lot of different growing conditions in west-central Saskatchewan during the past 50 years.

But he’s never seen conditions change as quickly as they have in the past 12 months.

“We’ve had a lot of dry years but I’ve never seen it go from one extreme to another in such a short period of time,” said Nisbet, whose son Troy now runs the family farm near Rosetown, Sask.

“The last three years were some of the wettest on record in this area but this year, it’s a different story. Since we started seeding … we haven’t had any moisture that’s worth mentioning.”

According to Nisbet, crops in the Rosetown area are already at a critical point.

In a June 4 interview, he said early seeded fields that germinated are now sitting dormant, waiting for rain. Others haven’t germinated at all. If rain doesn’t come in the next week to 10 days, a wreck could be on the horizon.

Conditions are similar across much of Western Canada, although parts of Manitoba were beginning to report wet conditions last week.

After half a decade of abundant moisture and sometimes excess rainfall, the taps have suddenly turned off.

Farmers in Saskatchewan are no longer talking about flooding and ruts. Instead, it’s the D word.

Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture Canada, said conditions affecting prairie grain growers started to change about six months ago.

Last year’s dry harvest period was followed by a mild winter with below normal snowfall.

What little snowpack there was disappeared early, leaving prairie soils exposed to drying winds, mild spring temperatures and early season evaporation.

Since then, lack of rain has compounded the problem.

“We started out the year very dry and now, without rainfall throughout much of Saskatchewan and Alberta … we’re starting to become very concerned about the moisture situation out there,” Hadwen said last week.

“There’s certainly moisture available farther down in the soil profile, but surface moisture throughout much of Saskatchewan and Alberta is very limited and that’s what producers are requiring for the initial start of germination and getting those crops off to a good start.”

Hadwen said rainfall between April 1 and June 1 is well below normal for a large portion of the Prairies.

A significant area in east central Alberta, centred around Hanna and Coronation, has had no appreciable rain in nearly a month and a half.

A much larger region that encompasses eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan, stretching from Cold Lake, Alta., in the north to the U.S. border in the south, has received rain, but accumulations are still well below normal.

In general, dry conditions persist across a large portion of Western Canada, Hadwen said.

Around Rosetown, about 100 kilometres west of Saskatoon, farmers got off to a decent start this year.

Early seeded crops had enough moisture to germinate, but in many cases, later seeded crops were planted into dry ground.

“The last few fields that we seeded, some of it’s just sitting in dust, waiting for it to rain,” Nisbet said.

“It hasn’t germinated yet and it’s not going to germinate until it rains.”

Even a little rain would get crops established and allow them to set roots deeper into the soil, where some moisture is available.

Slow crop development is affecting crop management decisions, with many growers taking a wait-and-see approach. By early to mid June, sprayers are usually running non-stop to stay ahead of weeds in western Saskatchewan. As of late last week, little in-crop weed control had taken place.

Crops are stressed, plant development is slow and the weeds, like the crops and the farmers that planted them, are waiting for moisture.

“At this point, I think everybody’s just kind of sitting and waiting,” said Nisbet.

A few kilometres away at Sovereign, Sask., 23-year-old farmer Justin Keith has never had to deal with low spring moisture, at least not to this extent.

This year, he and his family reseeded more than 1,900 acres of canola.

The original canola crop germinated and survived two early frosts but a third freeze in late May was too much for the drought stressed plants.

Keith finished reseeding into dry ground on June 4.

“A bunch of our young guys are getting a real eye opener this year,” said Rick Keith, Justin’s uncle.

“We’re coming off five, 10 years of abundant moisture and outstanding production. We saw 100 bushel an acre barley here for three years in a row. That’s the anomaly.

“It’s more common, in my mind, to have dry conditions than it is to have 10 consecutive years of abundance.”

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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