West stays dry as seeding season looms

Western Canadian grain farmers, especially those in southern growing areas, will be looking for timely help from Mother Nature this year as they gear up for what could be an unusually dry spring seeding season.

Agroclimate maps published by Agriculture Canada continue to show large areas of the prairie grain-growing region facing either dry or very dry conditions.

Jake Ayre, a producer from Minto, Man., about 25 minutes south of Brandon, said growers in his area and across southern Manitoba received less snowfall than usual this year.

In terms of overall soil moisture deficits, Ag Canada agroclimate maps point to southern Manitoba as an area of particular concern.

But producers aren’t panicking yet, he said.

A more immediate concern is the fate of forages and fall-seeded crops such as rye and winter wheat, he said.

“I would say it’s night and day difference between last spring and the upcoming spring… but we’re not at the panic point yet.”

Ayre said his father often reminds him that the family farm is “three weeks away from a drought and three days away from a flood.”

“We always seem to get somewhat of a crop off in drier conditions. It’s the wetter conditions that seem to affect us more.”

Current conditions point to a drier-than-usual start, but certainly not a disastrous one.

“As farmers, we’re constantly facing that battle of too much or too little. It’s part of the game,” he said.

Agriculture Canada agroclimate specialist Trevor Hadwen said with seeding operations expected to start soon, timely rains will be needed in some areas to ensure even germination and good crop establishment.

“We are starting this year… with a fairly large water deficit for soil moisture over a fairly large region,” said Hadwen.

“The prairie region as a whole went into the fall a little bit drier than normal and typically, after a fall season like that, we would want to see above normal snowpack and increased water infiltration during the spring melt to recover a little bit from that.

“The problem is, we didn’t see that this year. In fact, most regions of the Prairies didn’t see much snow at all this winter and for some regions it was extremely low.”

MarketsFarm weather analyst Bruce Burnett said as of March 26, winter precipitation in areas east of Regina will be among the lowest ever recorded.

Burnett and Hadwen agree soil moisture conditions can change quickly, but the way things stand now, the prairie growing region will enter 2021 with low soil moisture reserves.

That means many areas should have adequate moisture to support even germination, but a large number of farms will require frequent rainfall throughout the growing season to sustain crops.

“We’ve had this sort of a similar type of situation over the last number of years in parts of the Prairies… but I think the difference this year is that the area without any subsoil moisture is a lot larger,” said Burnett.

In many areas, dry conditions have been exacerbated by an early spring melt that favours more surface moisture evaporation, as opposed to infiltration, Hadwen said.

While Hadwen and Burnett say there is still time for conditions to change, Burnett said there is nothing in the forecast to suggest moisture relief is on the horizon.

Temperatures in the Pacific Ocean have warmed significantly over the past two months, suggesting that weather in Western Canada will be shifting to a neutral pattern in the coming months.

Soil moisture reserves in more northerly growing areas, including northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta north of Highway 16 will be more favourable this spring, following multiple years of excess moisture and flooding.

If the current situation persists, many farmers in southern regions may revisit their cropping decisions and adjust fertility plans. In some areas, plantings of small-seeded crops such as canola and flax could be reduced.

“We are probably two to three weeks away from some farmers having to make some decisions at the last minute about their cropping plans if the current situation continues,” Burnett said.

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