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Oh, snow

The recent heavy snowfall that blanketed parts of the Prairies didn’t stop Arden Johnson from loading barley into a semi truck from a grain bag  for L.A. Grant Enterprises, a farm near Aylesbury, Sask.  |  Mickey Watkins photo

Thanks to a late winter snowstorm, the equivalent of 25 to 40 mm of precipitation fell on eastern Saskatchewan in early March.

The moisture was a welcome relief for farmers in the region, who had rock hard soil last fall and were worried about seeding into parched fields this spring.

Unfortunately, the 25 to 50 centimetres of snow that fell on eastern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba won’t fix the severely dry subsoils in certain parts of the Prairies.

South-central Saskatchewan could still be dangerously dry this spring.

“The Regina, Moose Jaw, Weyburn and Indian Head (region) is still the hot spot,” said Trevor Hadwen, agroclimate specialist with Agriculture Canada.

“They (had) the highest (moisture) deficits from last year and have not rebounded very well.”

In November, Hadwen and his colleagues with Agriculture Canada’s Drought Monitor said the region around Regina was in a D3 drought. Agriculture Canada ranks droughts D1, D2, D3, D4, representing moderate drought, severe, extreme and exceptional.

The region around Regina needed above average snowfall and rain this winter to compensate for the shortage of moisture in the subsoil.

However, that hasn’t happened.

Most of Saskatchewan received 85 to 115 percent of normal precipitation from Nov. 1 to March 12. Parts of southeastern Saskatchewan have received 60 to 85 percent of the moisture in a typical winter.

“On top of the drought and dry conditions going into the winter, we have just received normal (precipitation),” Hadwen said from his Regina office.

“So nothing that’s going to make up for the deficits we had last year…. We’re not replacing a lot of the moisture lost last year.”

Soils in Saskatchewan were desperately short on moisture last fall because of the dearth of rain in the spring and summer of 2017.

Regina, for instance, received 1.8 mm of rain in July, the second lowest amount on record.

Other areas of Western Canada weren’t as dry, but many regions were short on rain last summer:

  • From April 1 to Oct. 31, most of the agricultural land on the Prairies received 60 to 85 percent of normal precipitation.
  • The region around Regina and south to the U.S. border received 40 to 60 percent of the normal moisture for that period.

That dryness persisted this winter in Manitoba. Including the March snowstorm, 40 to 85 percent of the typical amount of rain and snow fell on southern Manitoba from Nov. 1 to March 10.

While spring rains are still needed to recharge subsoil moisture, the March storm was definitely helpful.

“It’s like that typical thought: if you can get a March snowstorm it might be worth more than a lot of the precipitation we get in January and February and December,” said Bruce Burnett, Glacier MarketsFarm’s director of weather and markets information.

“It doesn’t change that subsoil situation a lot, but it does improve our ability to get onto the fields and plant into moisture this year. It’s good. It’s a lot better than we were…. (But) the need for timely rains, in the drought impacted areas, still is there.”

If there is a slow melt this spring, the majority of the snowpack should infiltrate into the ground because topsoil in much of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan was dry going into the winter.

That’s good for agricultural soils, but farmers also need water for livestock.

“We’re not seeing a whole lot of runoff potential (this spring),” Hadwen said, noting the forecast suggests there will be a gradual melt.

“Which is great for this year’s crop development but it doesn’t solve the issue with water supplies. For those producers that rely on their dugouts … that’s the bigger issue right now.”

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