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Most hoping for rain in the forecast

With low soil moisture reserves most Prairie farmers are hoping for snow and rain early this year

It would be a hard sell to convince Robert Semeniuk of Smoky Lake, Alta., that 2017 was a very dry growing season. He is the only participant in the January 2018 Farmer Panel who, on his northeast Alberta farm, had to fight with too much moisture from seeding through to harvest.

In many other regions across Western Canada it was a very consistent and contrary report on the past year — for most it was just too dry.

  • Read more: More snow lately over the Sahara than the Prairies

Other than corners like northeast Alberta, circumstances varied slightly across Western Canada, but a common report from producers: they were impressed with crop yields considering the lack of moisture during the growing season.

Some did experience timely rainfalls, which helped to carry the crop, others had to rely on ground moisture reserves from previously wet years. Other than odd-man-out Semeniuk many are counting on good wet snow this winter, or early spring rains to restore soil moisture for the 2018 crop.

None of the panel members report plans for major changes for their 2018 crop rotations, although the caution flag is up on what to do with pulse crops this coming season. If the market signals don’t improve acres could be reduced.

While there is a concern about some markets, and generally a concern about which way the weather might swing, there was also a consensus that it is early yet supporting the adage “no one has ever lost a crop in January.”

Here is what January Farm Panel members had to say about 2017 and their plans for 2018 growing seasons.

Dustin Williams, Souris, Man.

When contacted in mid-December, Dustin Williams was actually out travelling on a “summer only” road in southwest Manitoba. That was just an indication of how dry it was, with at that point no sign of winter in his part of the country.

Although the 2017 yields on his grain and oilseed farm were “reasonable” considering the growing season, the soil profile was dry. He’s concerned about spring seeding.

“Overall yields were better than I expected,” says Williams. “We had very good subsoil moisture heading into 2017 and with a couple of timely rains during the growing season the crop came along quite well. It was a bit spotty, but in some areas we actually saw above average yields. There is no doubt about it, the subsurface moisture saved our bacon.” But there is no reserve left for 2018.

Williams hasn’t changed 2018 plans drastically due to the dry conditions. He took the opportunity with dry field conditions last fall to work up some of the previously wet, low spots in fields. And he reduced the amount of vertical tillage on the farm last fall. He has used it in the past couple years to open the soil profile to help fields dry out and breakup surface soil compaction.

Looking ahead to the 2018 growing season, he’s planning a one-pass, direct seeding operation — no spring tillage. And if the winter/spring stays dry he will reduce the number of corn acres in 2018.

In the meantime he’s hoping for a good snowpack this winter to help recharge soil moisture.

Dallas Leduc, Glentworth, Sask.

Yields were down in 2017, but Dallas Leduc at Glentworth in southern Saskatchewan was pleased with what he did harvest.

“I am amazed at what we did get on little more than an inch of rain all season,” says Leduc. “We only got about 7/10ths of an inch during the growing season and the rest of the crop grew off soil moisture reserves. But it is dry now. There is nothing left.”

Overall grain, oilseed and pulse crop yields were only about one-third of the farm average.

Looking ahead to 2018, Leduc says he will stick with the crop rotation for the most part. He expects to need less added fertilizer since there is pretty good fertilizer carry over from the 2017 crop. And he may grow fewer pulse crops and increase the oilseeds depending on the weather and markets.

Charles Schmidt, Davidson, Sask.

Charles Schmidt says he wants to offer a heartfelt thank you to Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall for extending a warm welcome to him and his family as they moved last year from southeast Alberta to Davidson, in central Saskatchewan.

“We left a very dry growing area in Alberta in 2016 and the Premier was kind enough to organize one of the biggest droughts in Saskatchewan in recent memory,” jokes Schmidt. “It certainly eased the transition.”

Needless to say it was dry at Davidson, SK in 2017 — that after a few excessively wet growing seasons.

“Overall I think we did incredibly well considering the amount of rain we did get and the fact it was a transition year,” says Schmidt. They got the remainder of their farm machinery moved to Davidson in late March. And he had some fields on the Davidson farm to harrow before seeding. His seeding for that area was about four or five days later than most of his neighbours.

While there were soil moisture reserves, there was virtually no rain during the growing season — 2/10ths here and there. “About the first real rain we got was about a half inch in August which probably helped the grain to fill but didn’t do much else,” says Schmidt. Being his first cropping year at Davidson, Schmidt doesn’t have a yield track record established, but was satisfied his yields weren’t far below what others cited as the area average.

While it was a dry growing season and he got the crop harvested, his area was fortunate to receive about four inches of rain in late fall, which helped replenish some soil moisture reserves. The dryer conditions also provided a chance to work some of the formerly wet low-lying areas that had grown up in weeds.

Looking at 2018, Schmidt says he is waiting to see what the pulse market does before deciding how many pea and lentil acres to seed. He grew about 620 acres of lentils in 2017 and as of mid-December that crop was still sitting in the bin. At one point last fall no one, himself included, was interested in an elevator price of 23 cents a pound, but now as the price has dropped to the 13 to 17 cent range (well below break even) that 23 cents actually sounds pretty good.

“So with the current market situation I have to decide whether to seed lentils again in 2018 and be prepared for more on-farm storage, or grow something else,” says Schmidt. Durum wheat might be a possibility as it did fairly well in 2017 with low fusarium disease pressure. But if weather conditions change high disease pressure could be a reality again. “We can’t do much if foreign markets don’t want our pulse crops,” says Schmidt. “But on the flip side they have to appreciate if the day comes and they do want our peas and lentils they may not be available.”

Dennis Reimer, Hudson Bay, Sask.

Dennis Reimer says once he got 3,000 acres of field ruts levelled out and burned off 1,600 acres of flattened cereal crops, all left over from the very wet fall of 2016, the 2017 growing season actually went quite smoothly.

Reimer, who farms near Hudson Bay in northeast Saskatchewan (not far from the Manitoba border) says once he got the mess from the 2016 growing season cleaned up 2017 was a “pretty good” year.

“It took a while to get the ruts levelled out using the cultivator and harrow,” he says. “And the cereal crops from the previous year were flat to the ground, so we had to burn those off. So by the time we got that done we were about 10 days late in getting to our seeding.”

Dennis Reimer, left, and Charles Schmidt took advantage of dry weather in July to attend the 2017 Ag In Motion farm show at Langham, Sask.
photo: Lee Hart

Fortunately there was good soil moisture reserve to carry the crop because there wasn’t a lot of rain during the growing season. Overall, Reimer says wheat yields were decent with the protein a bit low at about 13 per cent. Most of the canola yielded about 60 bushels per acre and oats came in at a respectable 120 bushels per acre.

While there wasn’t much rain during the growing season, Reimer says they did get about 4.5 inches of rain mid harvest, which has helped provide reasonably good moisture reserves heading into 2018.

He doesn’t foresee any major changes to his main canola/wheat/oats cropping rotation. He did grow soybeans for the first time in 2017, with “satisfactory” results and he may grow those again in 2018 along with some faba beans.

Robert Semeniuk, Smoky Lake, Alta.

Robert Semeniuk says it is a good thing he is not a heavy drinker or the last two growing seasons might have put him over the edge — “they have been two of the toughest crop years we’ve come through,” he says.

In mid-December he was just about ready to fire up a new grain dryer on the farm as all of his 2017 crop came off tough. And that followed a horrible harvest in 2016 that ended with about 25 per cent of his crop left out in the field to be cleaned up before a crop could be seeded in 2017.

“We did get the 2016 crop cleaned up (mostly canola) and it actually came off better than I thought it would,” says Semeniuk, who farms at Smoky Lake about 1.5 hours northeast of Edmonton. But that was just a preview to another wet growing season.

“It was just a challenge all year,” he says. “We had close to 30 inches of rain over the growing season.” It was wet at seeding, they had ruts to contend with. The field sprayer repeatedly got stuck during the growing season — more ruts. “And at harvest it seems like we had rain every day or every second day,” he says. “It wasn’t heavy, just a drizzle, but it was enough to keep you from combining.”

Robert and Angela Semeniuk of RAS Farms at Smoky Lake, Alta., came through two tough years of cropping.
photo: Courtesy Country Guide magazine

He did manage to get the peas off dry, but canola and wheat all came off tough — hence the need for a new larger capacity grain dryer to get crops ready for market. He did market some tough grain noting “it’s amazing how the grain companies can find a market for tough grain when they want it,” he says.

With 2017 almost in the history books, Semeniuk says the crop plan is ready for 2018 but he’s also waiting to see what happens with the pulse crop market. “With India not wanting our pulse crops and NAFTA under review there are some market uncertainties,” says Semeniuk. “So we’ll have to be watching to see how things develop.” If he reduces pulse crop acres he may have to increase cereals. Being in a clubroot disease-prone growing area pushing canola in rotation isn’t an option.

As 2017 ended soil moisture conditions on the farm were reasonable, with hopefully no winter or spring weather events to tip the balance.

Greg Newman, Fort Vermilion, Alta.

Near the edge of Alberta’s cropping area, Greg Newman says it is dry in the northern Peace River Region.

Greg Newman says it is dry in the northern Peace River Region.
photo: Courtesy Greg Newman

“We have zero subsurface moisture and we’ve had very little snow,” says Newman who farms near Fort Vermilion, about seven hours north of Edmonton. They’ve had four to five years of fairly dry growing seasons in the northern Peace so his 2017 crop relied mostly on rain.

“We were fortunate to have timely rainfall,” he says. “We’d get half an inch of rain and the crop would grow half an inch and then we had to wait for the next half inch of rain. But overall we had a decent crop, not a bumper crop by any means, but decent.”

Newman, who grows wheat, barley, canola and yellow peas, says he isn’t planning any major changes in crop rotation for 2018. “The rotation we have works pretty well,” he says.

He did grow 100 acres of quinoa under contract for the first time in 2017. “And that was a learning experience,” he says. Quinoa is a small-seed grain growing on a plant that looks much like a lamb’s quarter weed, says Newsman. If the market is there, he may grow it again in 2018.

Josh Fankhauser, Claresholm, Alta.

In southern Alberta, Josh Fankhauser says under very dry 2017 growing conditions, winter wheat actually had the best yield of all his crops on his farm near Claresholm about an hour northwest of Lethbridge.

“The quality of all crops was excellent, but yields for most were down,” he says. Spring wheat yields were down about two-thirds of average, while canola was about 50 per cent of average. “Winter wheat actually did the best coming in close to average,” he says. As a former director of the Winter Wheat Commission he says that will be good news to his friends promoting winter cereals.

In southern Alberta, Josh Fankhauser says his crop quality was excellent, but his yields were down for most crops.
photo: Courtesy Josh Fankhauser

The farm does have some irrigation, but crops seeded under pivot were harvested for silage for the cattle side of the diversified operation. Everything else was dryland. While the area did have some snow in October and early November everything was brown by mid-December. Winter/spring moisture is needed to replenish soil moisture reserves.

Fankhausher doesn’t expect any major changes in rotation for 2018, although he says with shorter crops, crop residue levels are getting thin. He may grow more cereal crops in 2018 just to get more stubble cover over the farm to improve soil and moisture conservation.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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