The big dry

Crops in southwestern Saskatchewan are suffering under intense heat. Temperatures in the mid- to high-30s C last weekend capped off what has been an extremely hot and dry July throughout the southern grain belt. Durum crops are losing yield as they struggle to finish under drought-like conditions. This photo was taken July 28 near Cabri.  |  Brian Cross photo

Relentless heat continued to take a toll on crops in western and southern Saskatchewan this week, turning what might have been an above average harvest into one that will be average at best in some areas and below average in others.

In southwestern Saskatchewan, daytime temperatures peaked at more than 38 C July 30, capping off what has been one of the hottest and driest months on record in the province’s southern grain belt.

In Swift Current, roughly nine millimetres of rain fell during the month of July.

Regina recorded just 1.8 milli­metres on the month. That’s less than a tenth of an inch.

“It’s been dry, that’s for sure,” said Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan who farms near Gray, Sask., south of Regina.

“In July, we’ve had no measurable precipitation at all at our place … so everything’s starting to look pretty stressed.”

Although the 2017 harvest is just getting underway, this year’s crop — at least in the southern part of the province — will fall short of the potential it showed just a few weeks ago.

Rain has been a rare and precious commodity throughout the southern Prairies this summer.

Although many farms started the season with excellent soil moisture, the weather since then has been consistently hot and dry.

In general, crops seeded in late April or early May will be less prone to yield loss than those that were planted in mid- to late-May, Lewis said.

In the Gray area, many cereal crops are still in decent shape, thanks to optimal soil moisture conditions at seeding time and a healthy shot of rain than hit the area in late June.

“We’re still hoping we’re going to end up with close to average cereal crops,” Lewis said earlier this week.

“I think the durum could still make an average crop in a lot of areas, but the canola certainly is not doing well.”

In west-central Saskatchewan, crop conditions are variable, depending on localized thunderstorm activity during the past month or so, said Kindersley area farmer Jim Wickett.

Entering the week, yield potential in cereal and pulse crops ranged from slightly below average to slightly above, he said.

However yield losses are mounting daily.

“If you were lucky enough to get under a thunder shower here and there, then the crops are kind of hanging in there,” said Wickett.

“If you weren’t so lucky, things were looking good until about a week ago … but with all the heat during the past week, things are starting to go backward.”

Shannon Friesen, provincial crop specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said harvest is just getting under way in the province, with less than one percent of the provincial crop combined as of earlier this week.

Harvest will be early and dry, she added, particularly in the south.

“Much of the south had yet another week of very warm, very dry conditions,” Friesen said.

“Harvest is well under way in some areas, so if (farmers) do get some rain, it may help to fill some of the crops, but in many cases, it will be too late.”

Wickett agreed, saying early seeded crops are generally better off than those seeded later in the spring.

“The early cereals are done. They’ve been in for 90 days and they’re on the turn now, so I don’t think rain is really going to have any beneficial effect on them,” he said.

“But some of the later crops could definitely use a rain. They’re starting to show the effects of all this heat.”

Temperatures in west-central Saskatchewan have routinely eclipsed the 30 C mark over the past week to two weeks,.

Last weekend, the mercury peaked at 36 C in Kindersley, adding further stress to crops that are losing yield daily.

“It’s just unrelenting,” said Wickett. “I think the cereals still have the potential to be a nice average crop … but the canola is definitely going backward.”

In many areas, later-seeded cereal crops are aborting kernels on the top portion of the spike as they struggle to finish under extremely dry conditions.

Canola yields will be affected significantly, despite what appeared to be an excellent start.

“It just keeps coming day after day,” said Wickett.

“It’s always hard to predict until you get in there with a combine, but I’d say we’re looking at an average crop at best in the Kindersley area, certainly not above. We’re living on last year’s rain.”

In the area south of Regina, some growers are comparing the summer of 2017 with the summer of 1988, a year that many farmers consider the driest in recent memory.

“I think 1988 was bad, but I would say this year is certainly on par with ’88,” said Lewis.

“We’re very fortunate that we had good moisture coming into the spring.”

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