Heavy snow leaves southern Alta. farmers scrambling

Snowfall that fell on southern Alberta Sept. 28-30 — up to 55 centimetres in some parts — is gradually leaving a muddy mess in its melting wake.

The resulting field conditions were already creating problems last week for farmers trying to complete harvest. About 90 percent of silage corn was still standing when the snow hit. Potato, beet and alfalfa seed harvests ground to a halt.

“It’s starting to melt down, but it’s looking really bad,” said Brooks area farmer Brian Slenders on Oct. 4. “The guys are scrambling. I don’t think there’s a silage cart anywhere in southern Alberta (to be borrowed or rented) … or a dolly to go under an end dump. Guys are trying to figure out how to put large trailers behind tractors and try to pull them because trucks aren’t going to go through.”

The snowfall was accompanied or followed by frost, reported at as low as -17 C in some regions of the south. That stopped all crop development.

“That did all the corn in, so it’s all going to be drying down at the same time,” said Slenders. “It’s going to be a huge compression of workload, trying to get all that corn up in nice shape while dealing with snow and mud.”

Despite the snow, most standing silage corn stood up to the conditions, said Corteva area agronomist Nicole Rasmussen. In the Highway 3 corridor of Alberta’s south, she has seen very little crop lodging. The challenge now is to cut the silage at the right moisture level once field conditions allow entry.

“The frost can make moisture loss in the plant very unpredictable. It can either dry much more rapidly than without frost or it can trap moisture in the plant and it will stay wet for a very long time,” said Rasmussen.

“My recommendation, and I’ve probably answered 100 phone calls in the last few days, is you really just need to monitor it. Keep chipping samples.”

Few growers had started their silage corn harvest before the late September snow because it wasn’t yet mature. Though frost won’t affect feed quality in the plants, it will deteriorate with time.

“Where the problems come is if they can’t get it in the pit at the right moisture. If it drops moisture too fast and goes in dry, you’re going to have that dry spoilage. If it traps moisture in and you’re forcing it into the pit because you want to get it the heck out of the field, you’re going to have spoilage on the wet side,” said Rasmussen.

Ideally silage should be put up at 60 to 70 percent moisture.

Adrian Moens of AJM Seeds said he was surprised at how well standing corn survived the snow. Though melting was underway starting Oct. 2, shade and shelter in the corn crop are likely to slow the melt.

“I don’t think we’re going to get in there very soon. We’re going to be a while,” said Moens.

“I think in general we’re going to be seeing guys putting up silage a little on the drier side this year because of lack of ability to get in there. But once we can go, it’s amazing how much horsepower is out there and it won’t take very long to get through everything.”

Potato grower Greg Nakamura said Oct. 3 that harvest was halted by the snow but growers had already dug about 85 percent of potato acres in the region before the storm.

“I think we’re fortunate that we had so much snow because it’s covered the ground and insulated it. From what I’m hearing out in the industry, nothing has frozen yet. It might affect some colour because of chilling the potatoes but hopefully we can get back in the fields and finish harvest.”

Alfalfa seed growers will not be as lucky. Slenders, who is also president of the Alberta Alfalfa Seed Commission, said most of that crop had been desiccated before the snow and is now flattened.

“Alfalfa seed is probably 40 percent done and it’s just going to be a wreck. Hopefully it won’t sprout because it’s all flat,” said Slenders. “Almost all the alfalfa seed had been desiccated. It hasn’t sprouted yet but it will. It’s going to be a rotten wet mess if it does that.”

Slenders was busy sorting calves on Oct. 4. He brought cattle home from native range because they couldn’t dig through some 40 cm of snow to graze.

As for the rest of corn harvest, “we’re going to hook up a big tractor on the front and we’re just going to pull the trucks through. It’s impossible to drag trucks through the snow but I think we can get through the mud. It’s not going to be fun and it’s not going to be quick. It’s going to be a lot of man hours.”

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