Mild winter = early spring?

The planting season will likely start early across most of Western Canada this year, thanks to an early spring melt and an extremely mild winter that delivered average or below average snowfall to most of the Prairies.

Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture Canada, said soil moisture levels will be reasonably good across most of Western Canada, despite a “significant departure” from normal snowfall amounts this winter.

“We didn’t receive nearly as much snow as we normally would, especially in the southern regions of the Prairies, right through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” Hadwen said.

“You can take a line from about Red Deer, straight across to Winnipeg and anything under that line, received below normal precipitation.”

Soil moisture entering the spring will be variable across the West, but there are only a few spots that are facing a significant risk of inadequate soil moisture.

The most notable of those areas is in southern Alberta, below the Trans-Canada Highway and in the Alberta Peace district.

Hadwen said soil moisture reserves in most parts of the West had recovered before freeze-up.

“We’re still watching a couple of areas very closely … but again it’s still very early and snowfall doesn’t make up a whole lot of our annual precipitation….”

Overall, soil moisture levels to start the season will range from average to slightly better than average across much of the northern grainbelt, down to slightly below average in more southerly areas.

“We’re actually in pretty good shape,” said Jeremy German, a senior agronomist with G-Mac’s AgTeam based at Kindersley, Sask., west of Saskatoon. “Today, if the soil was a bit warmer, it would be darn near ideal conditions to go out and start seeding.”

German said growers in much of west-central Saskatchewan will start the year with ample moisture.

For some, rain that disrupted harvest operations last fall will be viewed as a blessing this spring, providing enough moisture to replenish ground moisture and get crops off to a decent start.

“Right around Kindersley, there’s about a foot to … a foot and a half of moisture but if you go farther south … there’s a big swath between Leader, Sask., and toward Medicine Hat that didn’t get a lot of snow and only had an inch or an inch and half of rain all last season,” German added.

“They’re in a little bit more dire straits down there. They’re going to want to get out early and try to take advantage of any little bit of moisture that’s available.”

The winter of 2015-16 has already been labelled by climatologists as one of the driest and mildest in decades. Precipitation since Nov. 1 has been well below average.

In the drought-stricken Alberta Peace region, farmers will be facing some of the driest spring planting conditions in years, said Nora Paulovich, manager of the Northern Peace Applied Research Association at Manning, Alta.

Unless a significant amount of precipitation arrives in the next few weeks, farmers in the Alberta Peace will be dealing with poor germination in annual crops, limited forage production and reduced carrying capacity on pastures.

“We’ve had a very mild winter with minimal snow and it’s all pretty well gone now,” Paulovich said in an April 4 interview.

“There was minimal runoff into our dugouts and everything is drying up very quickly.”

Growers in the Alberta Peace had an extremely dry growing season last year and did not benefit from late season rains that fell in many other parts of Western Canada.

“We’re certainly hoping for some spring moisture because we went into the fall very dry … (and) we did not get the harvest rains.”

In the eastern Prairies, conditions will be generally more favourable.

Thom Weir, senior agronomist with Farmer’s Edge, described conditions in east-central Saskatchewan as good to very good.

He said growers across a large stretch of eastern and east-central Saskatchewan received close to a foot of wet snow in late March.

That, combined with recurring rains last fall, replenished soil moisture throughout eastern Saskatchewan.

“We might have too much moisture in some areas but overall, things look good,” Weir said. “We were dryish going into harvest last year but then we had significant fall moisture, which brought things right back up.”

Western Canadian growers who are coming off their two most productive crop years in history are expected to increase plantings of peas and lentils this spring.

Financial returns on those two crops were strong last year and sales of pedigreed seed have been brisk throughout the winter.

In southern Alberta, some crops have been in the ground since mid-March, which is well ahead of farmers in other regions who normally seed spring crops in late April and May.

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