A widespread snowfall that covered much of Alberta and southern Saskatchewan last weekend has delivered a much-needed shot of moisture to what was shaping up to be an extremely dry spring seeding season for western Canadian farmers.
Rain, snow and blizzard conditions were recorded through much of Alberta and Saskatchewan April 27-28.
Varying amounts of precipitation were recorded across the western Prairies, with the highest snowfall accumulations recorded around Calgary, where 25 to 30 centimetres of wet snow covered the city and surrounding communities.
Snowfall amounts were lower in areas north, south and east of Calgary, with accumulations in the Edmonton, Red Deer and Medicine Hat areas reported around 15 cm.
As the storm tracked south and east from central Alberta, a combination of rain and snow fell, delivering short-term relief to spring drought conditions that have been worsening since last fall.
Total precipitation amounts in eastern and southeastern Alberta as well as southern Saskatchewan ranged from a few millimetres up to several centimetres.
Some areas received close to 25 mm of rain, along with a thick blanket of snow, according to sources at Environment Canada and Alberta Transportation.
The moisture caused havoc for weekend travellers but came as a welcome sight for prairie farmers who were facing some of the driest conditions in recent memory heading into the spring seeding season.
According to the Canadian Drought Monitor, soil moisture is in abnormally short supply across much of Western Canada this spring with significant deficits reported across many of the most productive farming regions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and western Manitoba.
Before the spring storm, the most recent drought map issued by the Canadian Drought Monitor rated the vast majority of western Canadian farmland as abnormally dry.
A large area of the West was already facing moderate (D1) to severe (D2) drought conditions heading into the spring seeding season.
The drought map can be viewed online at bit.ly/2KW4AfB. An updated map was due to be produced at the end of April.
“We’ve got some fairly large moisture deficits right through the region, both in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and even a little bit into Manitoba,” said Agriculture Canada climate expert Trevor Hadwen on April 26.
“It’s not abnormal to have a dry spring on the Prairies, but it’s certainly unusual to have a spring as dry as it’s been.”
As always, moisture conditions vary greatly across the West this year.
Soil moisture levels are quite favourable in some areas.
But in general, the West remains unusually dry.
Before last week’s blizzard, precipitation amounts received during March and April were well below normal in almost all parts of Western Canada.
In many regions, including west-central Saskatchewan and east-central and south-central Alberta, the amount of precipitation received during March and April was near zero, ranking the spring of 2019 as one of the driest in decades.
Last September and October, many Prairie farmers experienced unusually wet harvest conditions, including recurring rainfalls and an early blanket of snow.
Precipitation last fall provided some relief to the current moisture deficit, Hadwen said.
However, below-normal snow pack and a lack of spring moisture had many growers facing a dry start.
Last weekend’s storm will provide much-needed relief in areas where topsoil moisture was scarce or non-existent.
But its benefits may not last long.
In a recent interview, Hadwen said the two biggest concerns facing prairie farmers this spring are lack of surface water and poor subsoil moisture reserves.
Reports from some areas suggest that subsoil moisture is non-existent at depths of a foot or more.
Surface water reserves are also extremely low in many regions, a situation that could present ongoing challenges for prairie livestock producers this summer.
“A big concern for us right now is that we’re starting the year with subsurface soil moisture that’s below normal, so it’s not just the top layer of the soil that’s dry,” Hadwen said.
“The bigger concern, likely at this point, is the surface water deficits that we’ve seen.…
“The dugouts and surface water supplies that farmers rely on in some regions are already low … and those water sources don’t typically get replenished by spring or summer rainfalls.”
After last summer’s drought, hay was already in relatively short supply heading into the winter feeding season, Hadwen added.
Cory Jacob, Saskatchewan Agriculture’s crop extension specialist, offered a similar assessment last week, saying lack of soil moisture is a widespread concern in the province.
“We’re in … extremely dry conditions throughout the province,” Jacob said April 26.
“There might be some isolated pockets on the east side of the province that might be in good shape but overall, the entire southern part of the province is facing quite a big moisture deficit.”
Jacob said some crop producers, depending on where they’re located, may be inclined to get into the fields a bit earlier than normal to take advantage of what little topsoil moisture they have.
In more extreme cases, growers may delay some of their spring seeding plans until soil moisture conditions improve, particularly for small-seeded crops such as canola.
In its final weekly crop report of 2018, Saskatchewan Agriculture said many producers reported that subsoil moisture conditions were “very dry and that growing conditions may be affected next year if conditions do not improve.”
As of early November, topsoil moisture on cropland was rated as five percent surplus, 64 percent adequate, 24 percent short and seven percent very short.
Hayland and pasture topsoil moisture was rated as two percent surplus, 52 percent adequate, 36 percent short and 10 percent very short.
A spring seeding season that’s free of weather-related interruptions is always welcomed by producers, Hadwen added.
But as soon as planting is completed, growers will be looking for rain.
“May is a month where we typically get a fairly good amount of our spring moisture,” Hadwen said.
“At this point, we’ve had a very dry March and a fairly dry April, but conditions can turn around quite quickly.
“It’s fairly typical for the prairie region to have some concern in the spring — either too wet or too dry — so our farmers are well-accustomed to dealing with these conditions.”