Dry pastures, fields may go into winter parched

Aug. 31 was a great day for harvesting, with blue skies and late summer heat.

But while that was a terrific situation for thousands of grain growers driving combines across western Canadian fields, it was just another day of anxiety for Shane Jahnke.

“I’m a cattle guy. I need rain,” said Jahnke, whose Gouldtown, Sask., pastures and hay lands are parched after the summer drought.

While grain growers in the dry zones, which cover a significant proportion of the southern prairies, likely aren’t cursing the sunny skies as they combine their crops, their attitude was harsher during the midst of the growing season, with their crops losing yield potential as dryness stretched from spring onwards.

Yet many on the edges of the drought have ended up with crops that aren’t a complete disaster, even though they are much reduced from last year’s production.

In the worst areas, crops were devastated, but in less severely droughted areas farmers are managing to pull off a moderate crop, which is better than many expected.

How do you produce a crop with no rain?

“It’s last year’s subsoil (moisture,) that was very high,” said Chuck Penner, who operates LeftField Commodity Research.

“It’s what carried the crop.”

That creates another worry for grain growers now. When harvest is over, they will need lots of moisture to resupply subsoil moisture for next spring’s crop. Like a bank account pushed into overdraft, Saskatchewan and Alberta soils in the dry zone have very little moisture left to draw on.

Statistics Canada’s Aug. 31 crop production estimates found a western Canadian crop and yields far below last year’s, but not too far off 2015’s production.

Crops concentrated in the drought zone were severely knocked backed, with durum production falling to 3.9 million from about half of last year’s output, but other crops like canola were estimated to come in only a bit smaller, at 18.2 million tonnes versus 2016’s 19.6 million and 2015’s 18.4 million.

All-wheat production is estimated to decline to 25.5 million tonnes from 2016’s 31.7 million, but it’s not far off 2015’s 27.6 million.

It won’t be a good crop for Western Canada, by any means, but far from an overall disaster.

That’s likely a testament to the subsoil moisture left over from 2016’s soaking autumn weather, but it’s not a condition that will persist into spring of 2018 without fall rains recharging it.

There are still northern areas with lots of moisture but in southern areas grain growers will likely return to fretting over the continuing dry conditions, knowing that next year’s crop will face dodgy prospects if moisture reserves are not soon built up.

Penner says he was expecting something close to most of Stats-Can’s estimates, but that relied on accounts of what farmers were finding in the fields.

When it comes to next year’s crop, much will rely upon the combination of snow, spring rainfall and soil moisture carried through the winter. The latter is hard to gauge.

“How do you build that information into your models?” mused Penner.

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