Dryness threat not getting any better

Conditions range from ‘abnormally dry’ to ‘extreme drought’ across a large portion 
of Western Canada, causing increasing concern for the upcoming crop

Most prairie grain growers could be looking at a dry and early seeding season in 2018 unless conditions change dramatically over the next two to three months.

Trevor Hadwen, an agro-climate expert with Agriculture Canada, says conditions across much of the West remain unusually dry.

Agriculture Canada just released the latest version of its Canadian Drought Monitor map, which shows conditions as of Dec. 31 ranging from “abnormally dry” to “extreme drought” across a large portion of Western Canada’s most productive farmland.

“Some areas have improved since freeze up in terms of snow accumulation and moisture in the soil,” Hadwen said.

“But for the majority of the prairie region, conditions have not improved since the fall.”

With a few exceptions, much of Western Canada went into the winter with low soil moisture reserves.

Growers in parts of northern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan were the most notable exception.

Since freeze up, almost the entire prairie grain belt has received below average amounts of precipitation.

Agriculture Canada precipitation maps show the vast majority of farmland in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba has received roughly half of the precipitation that’s normally expected in November and December.

Ken Panchuk, provincial soil specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said Saskatchewan farmers who received a heavy snowfall in October are in better shape than growers elsewhere.

Generally speaking, farms located north of the Yellowhead Highway in Saskatchewan and Alberta have better soil moisture conditions that those south of the highway.

Some producers in west-central Saskatchewan have also seen some soil moisture recharge over the past two months, but additional moisture is on the wish list of most growers in central and southern Saskatchewan.

“Southern areas of the province, the brown soil zone, was dry in late October and has limited snow cover,” Panchuk said.

”Producers generally would like to see some snow cover to protect the soil from further loss of moisture by sublimation (evaporation).”

Panchuk said most areas of Saskatchewan have some amount of snow cover, but depth is variable.

“In the brown soil zone, it’s pretty thin,” he said.

“You don’t have to go too far south of Saskatoon … to see areas where the snow is not covering the stubble yet.”

Hadwen said lack of significant snow cover and extremely cold temperatures during much of December have compounded drought conditions in some areas.

Without an insulating layer of snow on cropland, extreme cold can freeze dry the soil and further deplete soil moisture reserves.

“In general, we’re going into the New Year with very low accumulations throughout the prairie region and very low water content in the snow that is around,” Hadwen said.

“That’s a little bit of a concern, given that we’ve just come off a fairly significant drought event (in many areas).”

Hadwen said a lot can change in the next two to three months, before growers begin planting their 2018 crops.

Snow that’s received in November and December normally accounts for a relatively small portion of total annual precipitation.

“Probably the most important piece here is what’s still to come,” he said.

“We’ve got spring rain and spring snow that are the most important (factors) for soil recharge still yet to come.”

Western Canada is currently experiencing the effects of a light La Nina phase, which is trending toward neutral.

Those conditions typically make it difficult to accurately forecast precipitation over the long term.

“There’s not a lot of confidence in our forecasts right now in terms of how things will turn out … over the next three months,” Hadwen said.

“They could change quickly or they could stay relatively the same. There’s just no confidence, no real strong indicators, showing us how things will react so it’s kind of up in the air right now.”

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