Editor’s Column: Farmers are worried about dry conditions this spring — here’s what some are doing about it

Editor’s Column: Farmers are worried about dry conditions this spring — here’s what some are doing about it

If you are worried about the dry conditions heading into this spring, a recent survey says you’re not alone. It also reveals the changes some Prairie producers will make to their plans for 2021 in response to the dry conditions.

On April 9-10, a total of 719 active Canadian producers responded to a survey carried out by Stratus Ag Research about their top concerns heading into spring in 2021. Of the 719 respondents, 500 were from the Prairie provinces.

Of those 500 Prairie farmers, almost half, or 48 per cent, said they were “very concerned” about the drought conditions heading into spring, or 56 per cent of Saskatchewan, 55 per cent of Manitoba and 27 per cent of Alberta producers.

Furthermore, when asked about overall moisture conditions on their farms this spring compared with what they viewed as normal, 86 per cent of those surveyed said moisture conditions were drier than normal, with 60 per cent stating it was “much drier” than normal while 26 per cent felt it was “somewhat drier than normal.”

Overall, producers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are most concerned about the dry spring conditions. In Manitoba, 78 per cent of the producers polled reported spring moisture conditions were “much drier” than normal while 67 per cent of those in Saskatchewan reported the same. A further 20 per cent in Manitoba and 18 per cent in Saskatchewan said spring moisture conditions were “somewhat drier than normal.”

And only 2 per cent of the producers surveyed in Manitoba and 14 per cent in Saskatchewan said they had normal spring moisture levels on their farms. One per cent of the farmers surveyed in Saskatchewan said moisture conditions were somewhat wetter than normal.

In Alberta, 34 per cent of the survey participants reported “much drier” moisture conditions and 45 per cent reported “somewhat drier than normal” moisture conditions. Only 16 per cent reported normal spring moisture conditions while four per cent in that province reported “somewhat wetter than normal” conditions.

April moisture was good news, but more rain is needed

At this point, any precipitation is going to help. In April, localized areas in eastern Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan picked up more moisture in a 30-day period than normal, making a net gain in those areas. However, central and western Manitoba and the areas westward of Regina in Saskatchewan did not get enough moisture to make a big difference to moisture levels, but the little bit these areas did get will help with topsoil moisture and to get the crops germinated, says Bruce Burnett, MarketsFarm director of weather and markets information.

Northern Alberta still has a lot of subsoil moisture. Last year, that region experienced flooding and crops were poor because of excessive moisture — these were issues farmers in parts of northwestern Saskatchewan experienced as well.

However, the remainder of Alberta, generally south of Red Deer, is dry and needs moisture.

“I’d like to see some rain, just to get the crops germinated in good order because it’s been a dry winter and now a dry start to spring. Areas south of Red Deer are dry and certainly need the moisture to get the crops germinated and going. Then after that we need to get regular rain,” says Burnett.

“I don’t want to be dismissive of the rain (in April) … but the impact regionally is relatively small.”

Below is Les Henry’s 2021 soil moisture map for the Prairies (from the January 19, 2021 issue of Grainews) which sums up what soil moisture is in the bank for your crops. As Les said, it shows a lot of red ink.

Base map courtesy of Andrew Nadler PEAK HydroMet Solutions. photo: www.peakhydromet.ca

The soil moisture map was created in November last year. Since then, it has been the driest winter on record, says Burnett, especially in the eastern third of the Prairies. In fact, in parts of Manitoba the winter was the driest on record going back to the 1860s, depending on the station the data came from.

For many parts of the Prairies, low subsoil moisture heading into the winter plus a dry winter and no recharge from snowfall or runoff has made for “very, very dry” conditions, says Burnett. “The spring has been largely devoid of runoff and that’s because the soils have been so dry — that’s what has caused them to, basically, suck up any moisture the snowpack had, and that’s the situation we’re in.”

What are farmers doing about it?

In Les’ January 19 column, he gives two scenarios for managing inputs in a dry year. It’s worth another look if you’re one of those producers dealing with dry conditions.

Producers taking part in the April survey by Stratus who indicated dry conditions on their farms (421 out of 500 farmers) also reported what changes they will be making to their plans for 2021 due to those circumstances. Here’s what the survey revealed across the Prairie provinces:

  • 81 per cent of farmers are gambling moisture will come and are taking full advantage of an earlier-than-usual start to seeding
  • 79 per cent of respondents say they will be more cautious about forward pricing their crops
  • 46 per cent plan to reduce expenditures on herbicides
  • 46 per cent say they will reduce the amount of fertilizer applied
  • 32 per cent plan to shift acres from one crop to another
  • 10 per cent say they will be more aggressive with forward pricing their crops
  • 18 per cent say they will change which crops they grow in 2021
  • 10 per cent plan to increase the amount of fertilizer applied
  • Six per cent plan to increase expenditures on herbicides
  • Six per cent say they will seed later than normal

For a detailed breakdown by province, see the chart below.

x photo: Stratus Ag Research

What does all of this mean? Lots of eyes on those Prairie skies.

“For anyone located in the Prairies — other than those in areas that had really good subsoil moisture in the north — this year you’ll get rain and you’ll feel good about it for a few days, and then, within a couple of weeks, you’re going to be looking for another rain for the crop. Because outside of getting extreme, above-normal precipitation, which you probably don’t want if you’re growing a crop, what’s required this year is just-in-time moisture delivery. Every couple of weeks we need to see a good rain. For the majority of farmers, they’ll be looking at the skies every two to three weeks, perhaps needing a significant rainfall,” he says.

On that note, I wish you timely rains and good planting conditions. And have a safe and healthy start to 2021.

Kari

About the author

Editor

Kari Belanger

Kari Belanger has been a writer and editor since graduating from the University of Calgary with a B.Sc. in Biology and a BA in English Literature in 1996. For more than twenty years, she has worked in many different industries and media, including newspapers and trade publications. For the past decade she has worked exclusively in the agriculture industry, leading a number of publications as editor. Kari has a particular passion for grower-focused publications and a deep respect for Canadian farmers and the work they do. Her keen interest in agronomy and love of writing have led to her long-term commitment to support, strengthen and participate in the industry.

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