‘This is what they mean by dry land farming’

Never, it seems, have a few tenths of rain made so many people so happy.

Aug. 1 brought as much as seven-tenths, about 18 millimetres, to parts of southwestern and south- central Saskatchewan, sending people to social media with photographs and comments of relief.

The first decent rain in more than a month still won’t be enough to help crops, and it didn’t fall everywhere in the parched region, where recollections of 1961 and 1988 have been regular conversation.

Environment Canada said July 2017 was the driest on record for Moose Jaw, at 4.3 millimetres, and the driest in 130 years for Regina, which received 1.8 mm compared to 1.5 mm in 1887.

Coupled with the searing heat — Swift Current recorded 14 days at 30 C or higher — and it’s a wonder there are crops to harvest.

“It’s surprising how the crop has hung on,” said Jerome Tremblay, who farms near Courval.

“I guess this is what they mean by dry land farming.”

The lack of rain has resulted in short, thin crops. Combining has begun in the region and yields won’t be great.

“There’s the odd pocket (of good crops),” said Scott Hepworth, who farms near Assiniboia.

“But there will be below average yields. Everyone’s holding on to see what durum test weights will be.”

Lee Fortin, who farms 5,500 acres with his brother south of Moose Jaw in the Ardill and Mitchellton districts, said he expects his pulse yields will be half of last year and canola will be one-third.

“I’ve heard some reports of lentils sub 10-bushels (per acre),” he said.

“It’s not very good.”

The Fortins have already sold a standing fall rye crop that deteriorated after flowering to a local livestock producer for feed. He said that was a win-win because cattle producers are facing feed shortages for the coming winter.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart said Aug. 3 that canola will be the biggest disappointment.

“I think I kind of have a rough handle on what it will look like and that is that canola is probably the hardest hit of the crops,” he told reporters.

“It’s surprising it’s as good as it is, but I think it’s maybe half a crop.”

That said, Stewart noted that crops in central Saskatchewan are in pretty good shape and no one really knows until the crop comes off.

Tremblay said he has been farming 44 years and has never seen it this dry. He hadn’t started combining yet, but expects yields will be all over the map, and harvesting unusually short crops, especially lentils, will be a challenge.

His wheat is about 60 centimetres tall, and he said he is thinking of double swathing it.

“We’re glad to get the half-inch of rain just for the pasture now,” he said Aug. 2.

Hepworth said he was happy to see the south can still get rain after a summer that saw heat, hail, wind and extreme fire risk.

“Most of the crops are on the ground, including the canola,” he said, referring to their height.

He also hadn’t started harvest last week, but said he had heard reports of large green lentils yielding in the 10 to 20 bushel range and quality that “hasn’t been real pretty.”

After seeding lentils into the mud, he said it’s hard to imagine how dry it got.

“We were pretty naive in thinking we only needed a couple inches of moisture,” Hepworth said.

The dry was good for one thing: it eliminated disease risk.

Fortin said he would typically apply fungicide to his chickpeas four or five times.

“My fungicide bill is reduced by 75 percent,” he said.

He also saw the bright side of a reduced fire risk through harvest and potential price increases.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. has moved adjusters into the south to accommodate producers who want to cut their crops for feed. Crops must be adjusted first before put to an alternative use.

Stewart reminded farmers that the Farm Stress Line is available. Calls to the line in July numbered 59, which is higher than usual. The largest volume in 2016 was recorded during September at 40 calls.

He said there is more than just the financial stress of a bad crop in which farmers have invested a lot of money and time.

“Farmers just don’t want to grow poor crops. It’s a thing with us farmers,” said Stewart, whose own crops are on the edge of a crop insurance claim.

“Especially when you see a crop start off real good and look beautiful, then go downhill, that’s hard. Please, if you’re not feeling good about things, call the stress line.”

Other measures the government has taken include making fish and wildlife land available for pasture and hay, extending the deadline for the Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure Program from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30 and evaluating the possibility of deferring principal loan payments on eligible loans under the Livestock Loan Guarantee Program.

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