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Farmers hoping for a balance in moisture

As spring finally takes hold, producers report a wide range of seeding conditions

The 2018 seeding season is starting out as a Goldilocks year for many western Canadian farmers — with conditions ranging from too dry, or too wet, they are looking for that middle ground that is “just right.”

Producers in parts of Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan are reporting enough moisture to get the crop started, but with insufficient snow to recharge soil moisture reserves, they will be counting on timely rains to carry the crop.

On the flip side, over a wide area of southern Alberta seeding rice from a canoe might have appeared as the best cropping option as of late April and early May.

Hope springs eternal that a slightly to considerably delayed 2018 seeding window will balance out into a good growing season. Only time will tell. Here are what producers contacted for the May Farmer Panel had to say about late April conditions:

Stewart Collin

Foremost, Alta.

While lack of moisture may be a concern in some parts of Western Canada, Stewart Collin has only to plow through flooded roads and look at the “lakes” covering hundreds of acres of southern Alberta farmland to know it will be mid-May before he can even think about seeding.

Collin, who farms near the southeast Alberta community of Foremost,estimates at least 15 per cent of the acres in his area won’t get seeded this year and it will likely take until June 1 for all surface runoff water to recede.

Stewart Collin took this photo on Highway 61 south near Foremost, Alta., on April 23, 2018.
photo: Stewart Collin

“Usually by late April we are wrapping up seeding in this area,” he says. That didn’t happen this year. The normally dry Foremost area got about 18 inches of snow late last October just as he was finishing up fall field work and there have been several more storms since then. It resulted in record flooding this spring.

Seeding logistics will be a challenge even when fields do dry out, he says. With saturated soils, he has half a section near his home with 23 sloughs he will have to farm around and to get to some fields a mile or two away it may mean a 14 mile detour. “I don’t have a big farm or big equipment, but it may be a challenge for some of these guys with 70-foot-wide air seeding units to work around the wet areas,” he says.

Collin doesn’t expect to start seeding durum wheat and yellow mustard until May 15.

Stewart Collin says seeding logistics will be a challenge, once the soil dries out enough to get in the field.
photo: Stewart Collin

Linda Nielsen

Starbuck, Man.

Even though it seemed like a long winter, Linda Nielsen didn’t think they would be too far off schedule getting the crop seeded on their south-central Manitoba farm.

By late April they had managed to get the air seeder pulled out of their machinery row to make sure it was prepped, but beyond that “no one has turned a wheel in this part of Manitoba,” says Nielsen who farms with family members near Starbuck, southwest of Winnipeg. One of her neighbours (as of late April) said his air seeder was still buried under ice and snow — it would take some melting to free it up.

Linda Nielsen expects to be in the field on schedule, and is concerned that it may be fairly dry.
photo: Linda Nielsen

“About the third week of April there was still three feet of frost in some places,” says Nielsen. “But with a good forecast ahead that should be disappearing. Some years we have been on the fields by late April and sometimes that might have been a bit too early too. If everything holds we’re going to try some seeding May 1 and see how it goes.”

Nielsen says while they may be a bit delayed, if they can get going by May 1 that should pretty well have them on schedule.

While their farm has mostly Red River gumbo soil that holds moisture, she is a bit concerned it may be still fairly dry. There are no major changes in crop rotation, although with a poorer market there will be fewer acres of wheat. “We’re going to seed a few more acres of soybeans, which makes me a bit nervous since we are on the dry side,” says Nielsen. “We will need some moisture.”

And they plan to seed more oats this year as well. “Oats are our go-to, fail-safe crop,” she says. “It is an economical crop to grow, yields well, and fortunately we have storage available to hold it.” She has already forward-priced a portion of the 2018 crop.

The spring seeding plan on Linda Nielsen’s farm near Starbuck, Man., includes soybeans, oats, some wheat and some canola.
photo: Linda Nielsen

The plan for 2018 is soybeans, oats, some wheat and some canola. So far, she says with a laugh, she has resisted pressure from neighbours and a local agronomist to grow corn. “I tell them, don’t talk to me about that four-letter “C” word, I’m not ready for that.”

Eric Fridfinnson

Arborg, Man.

Eric Fridfinnson says while fields were still a bit wet and there was probably still some frost in the ground as of late April, no one had been to the field yet in his area near Arborg, in the Interlake area about an hour north of Winnipeg.

Eric Fridfinnson says, “with a few warm days and some wind, those conditions can change pretty quickly.”
photo: Eric Fridfinnson

“But with a few warm days and some wind, those conditions can change pretty quickly,” he says. “So I don’t expect we will be much delayed from our usual seeding — likely getting a start in early May.”

While winter persisted, he says there still isn’t much subsoil moisture so timely rains will be needed.

Fridfinnson, who has grown forage seeds for export for years, says with a low market right now, it is an opportunity to convert those perennial forage acres to annual crops until forage seed markets improve. For 2018 he is planning to grow more canola and flax, reduce soybean acres and also keep wheat, grain corn and oats in rotation.

For 2018 Fridfinnson is planning to grow more canola and flax, reduce soybean acres and also keep wheat, grain corn and oats in rotation.
photo: Eric Fridfinnson

Marcel Van Staveren

Griffin, Sask.

There are a couple of things on Marcel Van Staveren’s wish list on his southeast Saskatchewan farm heading into the 2018 seeding season: more moisture and small canola seed size.

Van Staveren who farms with family members, says while it took longer for snow to melt this spring on their farm near Griffin, about 80 km northeast of Weyburn, what was there didn’t have much moisture.

“A couple of the larger key water bodies did recharge, but most of the ponds, puddles and low spots are about half full,” says Van Staveren, as of late April. On one hand that is good. He may be able to start seeding about the usual time — an April 30 to May 1 target date. But on the flip side it tells him there may not be much groundwater. His 40-some bushel canola crop and 50- to 60-bushel wheat crop last year pretty well used all soil moisture reserves.

Marcel Van Staveren says the last significant moisture on his farm near Griffin, Sask., was 2.5 inches in a rain storm last June.
photo: Marcel Van Staveren

“I am anxious to get out there this spring with the soil moisture probe to see what we do have,” he says. The last significant moisture in his area was a 2.5 inch rain storm last June. With snowmelt he estimates they’ve received about five inches of moisture over the past 10 months, which is well below the 12 to 13 inches of annual precipitation.

That scenario led to a couple of risk management options. First, he’s signed up for nearly full coverage with two crop insurance programs: Saskatchewan Crop Insurance as well as with a private crop insurance company, which in the event of a wreck should provide him with at least $200 to $300 return per acre.

And second, he’s gearing rotation more heavily toward durum wheat and canola. Durum does quite well even under dry conditions and canola has the ability to bounce back if moisture comes later in the season.

“Canola is a higher-input crop, so it is important to be as economical as possible,” says Van Staveren. That’s where seed size (seeds per acre) is a factor. “The difference between a seed batch that has a 3.5 gram TKW (thousand kernel weight) and another batch that has 6.5 gram TKW is about $30 more per acre.” On their farm, where they are seeding about 7,000 acres of canola, to get the desired plant population with the larger “beach ball” sized seeds could add $140,000 to $200,000 to their canola seed costs. He says if he buys seed in the fall he may not know the TKW of seed batches until it is delivered to the farm in March or April.

On Marcel Van Staveren’s farm, the 2018 rotation will be geared heavily toward durum wheat and canola.
photo: Marcel Van Staveren

One other wildcard in the 2018 cropping year is the success of their 2017 fall-seeded winter wheat acres. Van Staveren says the winter wheat didn’t establish very well so he will have to decide in May whether it will rebound or be re-seeded to durum. He has until about May 24 to make the call.

“We’re going heavy to durum and canola and there will also be some red lentils and spring wheat,” he says. “We’ll have to wait and see what happens with the winter wheat. We have a plan in place but there may be several decisions to be made on a day-to-day basis as we go through the seeding season.”

About the author

Field Editor

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

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