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Expected the unexpected in agriculture


Climatologist David Phillips says we ain't seen nothing yet

Ranchers in parts of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan dealing with TB quarantines on cattle — some strain from Mexico, where did that come from? How did that get into some 100-year-old herds?

Further north, farmers in central and northern Alberta and Saskatchewan are looking at anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent of crops out in the field under snow — still unharvested.

Generally not too bad a year for most — definitely surprising, unexpected and concerning times for others.

I don’t want to sound like an office bound Pollyanna, but when issues come along in my life — and there are issues, my life is not all fame and fortune — I just have to remind myself that “all will work out”. I don’t know how, or why or when, but all does work out. Head down, ass up, just do the best I can today and all does work out.

As a long-time agricultural writer, who, yes, can still remember growing up on a farm, I do have a fantasy wish that all farmers could have just one perfect year — let’s push that even a bit more and go for five perfect years in a row.

Early seeding, plenty of timely rain, no pests, lots of grass and hay, 105 per cent calf crop, no diseases, few weeds, near record yields and exceptional calf weights and really strong markets. And to ice the cake reduced input costs and all machinery on at half price.

No I haven’t jumped the gun on legalized marijuana, but I think that would be a really good thing. Five perfect years in a row.

Unfortunately, not long ago I was talking with David Phillips senior climatologist for Environment Canada. He doesn’t make the weather, but let’s assume he has a knowledgeable understanding of all the computer forecasting models. His view “hold onto your hats, we haven’t seen nothing yet.”

I believe that climate is changing — I won’t get into the “cause” debate here — but it is changing and generally the trend over the coming 20, 40, 60, 100 years will be for warmer, drying growing conditions.

That will be the trend, but Phillips says to expect all kinds of very sudden and intense weather events from season to season. Dry periods, intermingled with sudden and isolated thunderstorms and downpours, intense and sporadic hail, cold snaps, heavy snow, no snow — it will be a mixed bag of largely unpredictable events. The “normal” will be to expect or be prepared for some severe weather events mixed in with this warmer, dryer trend.

I was watching a TV show the other day and southern California is virtually out of water as it deals with a long-term drought. One farmer in PEI recently told me much of the island was quite dry in 2016, although he experienced a downpour over his immediate farming area last summer that was a 200-year event. He said there was very little snow so far, but two years ago they had 18 feet of snow. Ontario had one of the hottest and driest summers in 100 years.

In some parts of Manitoba conditions can be so variable some farmers are using both tile drainage systems (to deal with excess moisture) and irrigation systems (to cover extended dry spells), in the SAME year.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, reports of early dry springs, timely summer rain, excessive rain and snow in early fall, a beautiful November followed by a December deep freeze.

There has always been variable weather, but Phillips says it is just going to get more variable and more intense. How do you plan for that?

He’s not a farmer, but says there will be opportunities to grow some warm-season crops in parts of Western Canada that traditionally haven’t done as well here. Seeding seasons will be earlier, but then rainfall or irrigation will be needed to keep crops growing. He also says not to rely on weather forecasting stations “at the local airport” that maybe 20 or 30 miles away. Farmers may want to look for forecasting services that are more specific to their local area.

Expect volatility and change — I’ve heard that for a few years when experts describe market outlooks, and obviously now that shoe equally fits the weather as well.

Lee Hart is a field editor with Grainews based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]











About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

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



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