Farmers in Western Canada are preparing for a soggy spring that could delay planting and lead them to change their crop mix amid well-above-normal snowfall.
Farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba usually begin planting in late April in southern areas. But most of Saskatchewan's farming area has collected 1-1/2 times to more than twice as much precipitation than normal from Nov. 1 to March 20, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Drought Watch website.
A lengthy wait while snow melts and soils dry could shorten the window for planting, said Arlynn Kurtz, whose farm at Stockholm, Sask. is stacked with three to four feet (91-122 cm) of snow.
Then "some operations will be going 24 hours a day," he said. "It is going to be late planting this year, no doubt about it."
Snowstorms blew through all three provinces this week.
The worst flooding in 10 to 25 years is possible for large pockets of central and southeastern Saskatchewan, according to the province's Water Security Agency. Saskatchewan grows more wheat, canola and oats than any other province.
"Everybody's getting tired of this winter here," said Grant McLean, cropping management specialist for the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry in Moose Jaw. He said farmers "are starting to think it might be delayed planting."
Cooler-than-normal temperatures have also delayed melting conditions, the Manitoba government said this week, raising the possibility that warmer temperatures later in spring may result in sudden melting and floods.
Canada is the world's biggest grower of canola and the sixth-largest wheat producer.
Some farmers are already thinking of tapering back canola acres in favor of cereals, especially wheat, McLean said.
Wheat is better suited for adverse weather and can be cheaper to plant because it uses less fertilizer than canola. "It's a lower-risk crop," he said.
A modest move out of canola and into wheat is already expected, as many farmers have planted canola more often than recommended in a short time span.
If planting season stretches too late, farmers may plant more short-season oats and barley, Kurtz said. But he said farmers have to be careful not to plant the same crops too often, or risk depleting the soil's nutrients.
Saskatchewan has collected the most winter precipitation compared to norms, but snowfall has been heavier than usual in Manitoba and Alberta too.
The bigger concern than overall amounts during winter may be how much snow is still on the ground, with an estimated two feet at Winnipeg.
"You don't get spring and warmed-up ground until that snow melts," said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada in Winnipeg.
Dry last autumn
On the plus side, Western Canada's soils were much drier than usual last autumn, leaving room for them to soak up some of the melting snow. Canadian farmers were spared, however, similar conditions to the worst drought in the U.S. in more than 50 years, which curtailed crop production there last year.
Manitoba's fertile Red River Valley was dry heading into winter, and may have adequate capacity to soak in the melting snow, said Mike Wrobleski, agriculture weather specialist for the provincial agriculture department at Carman.
Many Manitoba areas received 10 to 20 cm of snow earlier this week, which is not cause for worry in itself, Wrobleski said.
Just south of Manitoba, farmers in North Dakota and Minnesota are bracing for major flooding along the Red River, which flows north through Winnipeg.
Cold weather is expected to linger in those states into early April, followed potentially by a fast snow melt, and rain, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Phillips, of Environment Canada, said most of Alberta and Saskatchewan should get normal temperatures in April, but Manitoba looks to be warmer than usual.
-- Rod Nickel is a Reuters correspondent based in Winnipeg.