Prairie producers dodge early frost bullet

Weather forecaster now predicts later-than-normal frost, which would add bushels to an already growing crop

Western Canadian farmers are breathing a collective sigh of relief after avoiding an early fall frost this year.

Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc., was originally forecasting a normal to early frost, which would have been devastating for this year’s late-seeded crops.

“We had some bouts of soft frosts and a couple of weak little freezes but there wasn’t anything that was shutting the crops down,” he said.

His revised forecast calls for the first killing frost to be later-than-usual, alleviating the most pressing concern for many prairie growers.

Lerner’s initial forecast was based on a summer pattern of “notable bouts” of cold air every 15 days or so. They came on June 13, July 31, Aug. 14 and Aug. 30.

It was that pattern in conjunction with the arrival of the solar minimum that had World Weather Inc. predicting the arrival of the first big frost on Sept. 12-14.

That would have been disastrous. In Saskatchewan, for example, the usual first fall frost for most of the crop-growing region typically occurs between Sept. 11 and Sept. 25, according to a 30-year average compiled by Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp.

A late crop and an early frost would not have been a good combination. Lerner now forecasts a prairie-wide killing frost somewhere in the Sept. 26-30 period.

He said the 15-day cooling pattern that was prevalent in the summer may have broken down as fall approached, which can happen.

Or it may be yet another example of the warming atmosphere wreaking havoc with traditional weather forecasting tools.

“The solar minimum trick may not work anymore,” said Lerner.

“I don’t know. That’s something I’m learning.”

Greg Kostal, president of Kostal Ag Consulting, said the delayed frost is the biggest supply-side story for western Canadian agriculture.

“Now we’re looking at a growing season that could go until the end of September,” he said.

“That adds bushels.”

Farmers are likely getting an extra two weeks of crop growth that many feared wouldn’t happen.

“Every week that goes by for a late crop adds bushels,” he said.

Statistics Canada also added bushels last week. Its September canola estimate is 19.36 million tonnes, which is about 900,000 tonnes higher than its August forecast.

Just about every crop forecast was higher in the September report, but canola really stood out.

The September estimate is based on a model that incorporates satellite data, data from Statistics Canada’s field crop reporting series and agroclimatic data. The August estimate was based on a farmer survey.

Derek Squair, president of Exceed Grain Marketing, doesn’t put much faith in satellite-based forecasts.

He noted that the satellite would have picked up plenty of vegetative growth in northwestern Saskatchewan but the light frosts Lerner referred to have reduced yields in some of those crops.

He thinks canola production will be somewhere between the August and September forecasts, in the 19 million tonne range.

Squair said the prairie region has dodged frost damage for the most part but there are still some areas in the north with second growth or hail-damaged canola that are not out of the woods.

He has noticed some swathing of green canola crops in central Saskatchewan.

“They’re swathing out of desperation because it’s going to get hit with frost if they leave it,” said Squair.

While yields for the most part appear to be set, there are lingering concerns about the quality of cereal crops due to harvest rain.

Lerner said that as of Sept. 16, rain was in the forecast this week for central, eastern and southern Saskatchewan and most of Manitoba.

The best areas for drying down crops are expected to be eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan.

But the rain isn’t all bad considering how this year started out with drought.

“We need that moisture in order to help set the stage for a better year next year,” he said.

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