Prairie moisture bank in good shape for spring

There are some dry pockets, depending on the map that is used, but much of the region has adequate moisture levels

Western Canadian grain farmers are heading into spring with loads of potential stored in the ground beneath their feet, says an expert.

“We went into the winter with a lot of moisture in the soil and there’s absolutely no concern at this point of the year about having moisture for spring,” said Trevor Hadwen, agroclimate specialist with Agriculture Canada.

Most of the Prairies have normal-to-above-normal soil moisture reserves. The only pockets where it is below normal are north-central Saskatchewan and central Alberta.

Hadwen said farmers in southwestern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta have expressed anxiety about the lack of snow cover in their regions, but the water beneath the soil more than makes up for the dearth of white stuff.

“There are no concerns in the southern Prairies,” he said.

Some ranchers might be worried about not having enough melted snow to replenish their dugouts and reservoirs, but most regions had a wet fall that took care of that, said Hadwen.

His one red flag is the possibility for flooding along the Red River this spring, depending on how rapidly the snow melts. Parts of North Dakota and South Dakota have record snowfall.

Les Henry, a Grainews columnist and former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, has been preparing his own stubble soil moisture maps since 1978.

“I do this with four colour pencils. That’s how I do it,” he said.

“There isn’t a lot of fancy computer programming, but dammit, I’ll stand behind it for what it is.”

His map is a little different from Agriculture Canada’s map because it shows soil moisture levels as of freeze-up on Nov. 1, 2019, rather than as a percent of normal.

Western Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta are mostly yellow on Henry’s map, which indicates it is dry. There is a sizeable pocket east of Calgary that is red, or very dry.

The remainder of the Prairies are primarily green or moist with the exception of southeastern Saskatchewan and most of southern Manitoba, which is blue or wet.

“The one thing I’m pretty certain of is anywhere from Regina east, water isn’t the biggest thing they’re going to think about when they get up in the morning on May 1,” said Henry.

“They know darn well that if it doesn’t rain much in May and it doesn’t rain much in the early part of June, it really doesn’t matter. They’re going to be just fine.”

He said soil moisture maps are a good winter planning tool for farmers. Producers in the dry areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta might want to consider backing off on fertilizer applications depending on their financial circumstances.

Those with plenty of moisture reserves in the soil may have a very different perspective on the upcoming growing season. They don’t need to be gazing skyward come spring.

“Water in the ground is a certainty. Rainfall is a probability,” said Henry.

He stressed that his map is a general guide. Farmers need to use soil probes to get an exact reading in their fields, and they are starting to do that more often these days.

Henry longs for the day when every farmer does that so that he can retire the four colour pencils.

AccuWeather is forecasting dry conditions across much of the Prairies this spring, especially in the southern Prairies.

“The dryness could cause some drought concerns ahead of the upcoming growing season,” AccuWeather said in a recent news release.

Hadwen said a dry start to the spring would be a welcome development for most farmers in the southern Prairies because a wet spring could cause serious planting delays because of saturated soil.

However, he doesn’t put much faith in long-term precipitation forecasts, especially during a neutral phase of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation.

AccuWeather agreed with Hadwen that flooding is a risk in Manitoba.

“There is a moderate risk of major spring flooding along the Red River Valley in Manitoba later this spring as there is a higher-than-normal amount of water frozen up in the underlying soil,” Canadian weather expert Brett Anderson said in the news release.

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