Dry conditions hold back winter cereals on the Prairies

Like their spring cousins, winter cereals across the Prairies are in need of a serious drink of water.

“Moisture is critical at this point. If we don’t get rain in the next two to three weeks we’re going to be looking at reduced yields in the winter cereals just because there’s not enough moisture there for grain fill,” said Dane Froese, cereals specialist for Manitoba Agriculture.

Mitchell Japp, Saskatchewan’s cereal specialist, said the current dry conditions cause stress to hit the plants a bit earlier and they could get to a point where they will abort tillers.

Alberta’s winter cereals are not faring any better, said Will VanRoessel from Bow Island.

“It’s looking very stressed at this moment because a lot of guys haven’t had much moisture since it was seeded in September. There wasn’t a lot of soil moisture to start with and you didn’t have very much snow and almost no rain since the snow melted,” he said.

Precipitation has been patchy or generally non-existent across much of the Prairies this spring.

Topsoil moisture conditions have deteriorated due to strong winds, warm temperatures and lack of moisture.

However, cereal acres are generally down this year, said Harry Brook, an Alberta crop specialist.

“There were less than average winter cereals planted last year just because we had such a difficult September. A lot of guys missed that window of opportunity to plant,” he said.

According to the provincial weekly crop reports, winter cereals in Manitoba’s central region are faring better than most.

Winter wheat, fall rye and perennial rye grass fields have benefited from the warmer weather and warmer overnight temperatures.

In most fall rye fields, Froese said the heads are fully emerged and about to flower, while winter wheat is further behind and going from vegetative to reproductive stages.

There was also very low winterkill in cereal fields this year across the province, helped along by more insulating snow, which improved survivability and regrowth.

However, eastern parts of the province east of the Red River did not fare as well.

“About 10 percent of fields had winter damage or some form of winterkill and needed to be patched, reseeded or reseed the entire thing, but that was fairly low level for that area,” said Froese.

Regrowth has been rapid in many fields, however wide fluctuations in day- and night-time temperature, including frost put a damper on some cereal development.

“It did tend to cause the plant to tiller more. Tillering has been fairly aggressive so far in winter cereals across the province, but the vertical height isn’t quite there just due to the lack of moisture,” he said.

In Saskatchewan, Japp said conditions vary widely with most crops split between good, fair and poor. The plurality is fair at 37 percent.

Fall rye is weighted a little bit heavier in the fair and good category.

“Fall rye tends to be a little bit more tolerant of dry conditions and it’s a little bit heartier throughout the winter months too,” he said.

But the lack of moisture has many crops stressed and starting to head out sooner than normal. He said the number of winter wheat acres is also generally down this year while fall rye is slightly higher.

However, all winter cereal acres are up this year in the southwestern region of the province, said Brad White, who farms at Gull Lake and is a director with the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission.

“In this area, at least some of it was put in with the intention of forage production,” he said.

“On these drier years it actually gets a foot and a half, two feet tall when everything else is struggling to grow. So compared to the hay there’s a lot more tonnage there now.”

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