Crop experts weigh conditions, outlook

A farmer cuts hay in a field south of High River, Alta. It is one of the few regions that received precipitation last month.  |  Mike Sturk photo

While it is too late for rain to help crops bounce back in some areas, other regions aren’t ready to write them off yet

Opinions are split on whether it is time to draw parallels to the drought of 2002.

Some analysts and farmers are making comparisons to that year, in which prairie farmers harvested only 78 percent of the crop that they seeded and production fell 24 percent compared to the previous year.

Others like Shawn Jaques, president of Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp,, said 2002 was a different year in some important respects.

There was little subsoil moisture when growers began planting their crops that year because of well below normal winter precipitation in many regions.

Forty-three percent of cropland topsoil moisture was rated fair or better as of April 22, 2002, according to a Saskatchewan Agriculture crop report.

Seeding conditions were far better this spring. Topsoil moisture was rated as 20 percent surplus, 76 percent adequate and four percent short in the first crop report issued April 30.

And it should be noted that it wasn’t just the dry conditions that shaved yields in 2002. Heavy rain and frost in August contributed to the damage already caused by the drought in June and July.

However, some people feel 2015 is reminiscent of the last serious drought on the Prairies.

Larry Weber, an analyst with Weber Commodities, has released his first 2015-16 production estimate for Western Canada. In it, he forecasts 44.9 million tonnes of production for all the major crops, down 25 percent from 2014 and well below the five-year average of 58.2 million tonnes.

Weber compared his yield projections to 2002 and found that his 2015 yields are similar for spring wheat and durum but a little higher for canola, barley and pulses.

He estimates this year’s production shortfall will cost prairie farmers $4.9 billion in lost cash receipts compared to last year.

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, agreed, saying dry land crops are in dismal condition in his province.

“We’re probably down to a five to a 10 bushel crop in a lot of areas, especially in the south here,” he said.

Dry conditions are widespread, reaching north to the Peace River region.

Irrigated crops look good, but they are incredibly thirsty.

“We put on probably as much water as we usually do all year at this point in time,” said Jacobson.

He doesn’t believe rain will do much good at this point for the dry land crops.

“The yield is pretty well set. The only difference rain would cause is a fat kernel for the few that are there.”

Alberta Agriculture spokesperson Lorraine Lynch said the province is not yet ready to declare an official drought.

“It’s too early to say what any of this will do at harvest time, but we do know it is impacting crops and hay fields,” she said.

David Koroscil, manager of insurance projects and sales with Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp., said there are dry conditions in northwestern Manitoba.

“The rest of the province is doing fairly well for precipitation,” he said.

In fact, many areas of eastern Manitoba have had too much rain, with another 50 to 115 millimetres falling over the weekend in quite a few regions.

The bigger issue in Manitoba this year was two May frosts that led to more than 3,200 reseed claims.

“That’s by far one of our biggest years ever for reseeds,” said Koroscil.

More than one million acres was replanted in the province, including 900,000 acres of canola. All of the lost canola acres went back to canola, and the reseeded crop is faring well.

“Soil conditions were pretty good and it was pretty warm at that time, so it only took them a few days to germinate,” he said.

Jaques is not ready to start ringing alarm bells yet in Saskatchewan, the biggest crop producing province.

“As far as predicting what’s going to occur, it’s just too soon,” he said.

Crops are in decent shape in eastern Saskatchewan, where there was excellent subsoil moisture heading into the growing season and some showers to help along the way.

It has been dry in the western half of the province, where some crops have been heading prematurely.

“There’s certainly going to be some issues,” he said.

However, he believes much of the crop is salvageable if rain falls in the next couple of weeks.

Jaques said his biggest concern is for Saskatchewan’s livestock and forage producers. Early season frosts caused considerable damage to hay crops, and there are mounting concerns about a potential feed shortage.

That is why the federal and provincial agriculture ministers extended the deadline for seeding crops for greenfeed to July 15 from June 30.

Jacobson said the federation will be pushing the Alberta government to reduce the 50 percent crop insurance hit that farmers are faced with when writing off crops and cutting them for green feed.

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