Drought becomes top-of-mind issue for farmers

It’s an awful start to the growing season. Western Canada is on the brink of a major crop failure and a severe feed shortage.

Miraculous turnarounds have occurred in past years and it’s amazing how much can sometimes be produced with very little rain, but the situation is quickly becoming serious. It’s not rare to be wishing for rain in early June, but it is rare to see the dry conditions so serious and widespread.

Growing season precipitation, defined as precipitation since April 1, is below normal in almost all of Western Canada. For a big chunk of central Saskatchewan, precipitation has been less than 40 percent of normal. This is surrounded by an even bigger area that’s between 40 and 60 percent.

If you look at Agriculture Canada’s Drought Watch maps for the agricultural year starting last Sept. 1, the percentages of normal aren’t quite as dismal with 60 to 85 percent dominating the region. However, chunks between Saskatoon and Regina and east of Calgary are at 40 to 60 percent.

While some early-seeded crops have emerged evenly, many fields have not. Despite seeding advancing rapidly, crops generally lag in their development. Without rain, some fields will have terrible emergence.

Adding insult to injury, frost has damaged many canola and mustard crops, and flea beetles have taken a toll even where the seed was treated. In-crop weed control will not advance at its normal pace. Crop protection companies promoting their fungicide products might want to save their money.

The situation in Western Canada stands in sharp contrast to the onslaught of rain in both Eastern Canada and the American Midwest. We can only hope weather patterns change in time to save the year from ruin.

For cow-calf producers, the hay crop will range from below average to non-existent. Grass needs early season moisture that just didn’t come. They say you don’t lose a grain crop in April and maybe not in May either. However, you can certainly lose a hay crop. In many instances, grass is drying up and browning off.

Along the southern edge of Saskatchewan and Alberta where the late April snowstorm was most severe, the situation is better than other regions, but in most instances producers are wrestling with how they’re going to maintain their breeding herds.

Hay prices are going to be astronomical if you can find any to buy. When droughts are more localized, there’s sometimes opportunity to move hay into the areas with shortages. That wouldn’t appear to be a viable option for this year.

If it does finally start raining, expect a lot of green feed to be seeded as a way to compensate for dismal hay and pasture growth.

You hate to cry wolf too early. Pundits, including this one, have sounded drought alarm bells before and then timely rains, subsoil moisture and modern farming practices have averted widespread catastrophe.

Trade-related issues have dominated agricultural news and while they are vitally important, lack of moisture has become the top-of-mind issue for a majority of producers. You have to grow a crop before market access and commodity values matter.

We need a significant amount of rain and we need it soon. Without substantial rain in the next one to three weeks, the potential for a decent crop will be lost. We can only watch the sky and the weather forecasts and hope.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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