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Les Henry: Droughts I have known

What comes next?

Les Henry: Droughts I have known

The 2021 crop year for the Prairie provinces will go down in history as hot and dry with a huge impact on crops, hayland and pasture. The lack of feed for livestock is most serious, as it will require forced sale of cattle with long-lasting effects on farms and ranches. Many would lead you to believe this is the worst ever, climate change is the culprit, and we are doomed if we do not immediately sell our half-tons and use electric cars or bicycles.

The main difference between 2021 and earlier droughts in Saskatchewan is the lack of dirt in the air. With almost complete adoption of zero till, we have mitigated some effects of drought in a big way.

Early droughts

Drought is no stranger to our region and most hark back to the 1930s, but there is much more history than that. Tree ring records show long-lasting drought periods going back hundreds of years.

Since settlement and establishment of agriculture, there have been several serious drought years or series of years. A few years back at the University of Saskatchewan, I stumbled on a 1998 Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) document entitled “Drought in the Palliser Triangle; A Provisional Primer.” It described a serious drought period in the early 1920s in the dry brown soil zone straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan border from Medicine Hat to Empress in Alberta and from Maple Creek to Leader in Saskatchewan.

That 1998 report also concluded “the drought-causing weather patterns are now recognizable and can be used to predict drought.” Funny, that. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) drought folks just recently stated they were working on a drought forecast that might look ahead one month.

1961: Forever etched in my memory

I finished my first year of university in April 1961 and went to the home farm at Milden, Sask., and helped Dad seed the crop. He had survived the Dirty ’30s and could smell a drought on the way. He said, “If you want to go back to university in the fall, you best find a job for the summer.”

Figure 1. As you can see in the above graph, 1954 was the rust year and 1964 was a huge hailstorm that cut a big swath right through the RM and completely destroyed all crops.

Small towns were installing sewer and water lines at that time so I found a job with a sewer gang at nearby Dinsmore. I started as a grunt at $1.15 per hour and was soon promoted to “pipelayer” at $1.35 per hour ($12.16 in current dollars). Clay tile sewer pipes were laid in a trench two feet wide and 10 to 16 feet deep, as required for grade.

Summer 1961 was super hot, so I had the “coolest” job down in those trenches. As I observed the various soil layers we went through, I thought about learning what it all meant and that was one reason for choosing the soil science option at university. When I crawled out of the trench for the last time in September, I knew why I was going back to university.

By August 2, we were installing sewer lines in the town of Cupar, about 50 miles northeast of Regina. It was my pleasure to lay the first and last sewer pipe in Cupar, and finish the job before I left for university around September 10. In those days, workers worked 10 hours per day, six days a week, with no such thing as overtime.

August 1961 was hot — real hot — and dry. From late May to mid-September, I recall no downtime for rain. Saskatoon and Regina had 19 days in August with temperatures at 30 C and higher (see Table 1 below). While I was cool in the trenches, not so at night. Accommodation was the third floor of the Cupar hotel. But at age 21, after hard labour for 10 hours and hard “play” in the evening, we could sleep standing up.

Table 1: Monthly mean temperatures have a small range, especially for July. Monthly rain can seem high for drought years when we remember almost no rain. The important statistic would be effective rain. In summer months, anything less than 0.5 inches adds nothing to soil moisture as it quickly evaporates. In 2020, at my Dundurn farm, we had two inches of rain from July 8 to freeze-up in small drabs, which added nothing to soil moisture.

Meanwhile, crops in 1961 were poor in most areas. Dad turned the cows into the stubble fields in July and the bit of crop that survived was harvested by a neighbour. Figure 1 shows wheat yields from the RM of Milden No. 286 for the years 1950 to 2020. I picked Milden because it is a small RM with a big municipal assessment (i.e. good land) and I know it well.

1988: Many combines left in the shed

In 1988 it was hot, especially in June. I have vivid memories of June 4-5 with temperatures at Saskatoon breaking the 40 C barrier. Bill Meneley and I were slaving away in an Eighth Street Saskatoon hotel meeting room pouring over maps and data for the West Side Irrigation Project. At about 4 p.m., the air conditioning system conked out, so we quickly shut down for the day. It was so hot, I could not open the car door with a bare hand.

The weather folks in 1988 were attributing the prolonged hot weather to an omega block by the jet stream. I have seen that same omega block jet stream this summer on the Weather Network — but they are no longer calling it that.

The summer of 1988 was when air conditioning was installed in many Saskatoon houses built in the 1950s-70s. In our house, built in 1964, the air conditioning has been little used the past many years when July climate (30-year moving average) has actually been cooler. In 2021, that all changed and we have been able to keep the old 1988 unit going for this hot summer weather.

Rain was a rare commodity in 1988, but dust in the air was common. I had an office in Kirk Hall at the U of S — an old brick building built in the late 1940s with leaky old windows. The desk was often covered with a layer of dust in the morning after a big wind event. In one sharp shower it actually rained mud — I kid you not!

As you can see in the image above, by 1987 we were making soil moisture maps as of freeze-up. West-central Saskatchewan had no subsoil moisture on stubble and even the fallow fields were not recharged. A quick glance at the rural municipality yields for 1988 confirms my August field trip observations through that area. Single-digit yields were “all she wrote.” Areas mapped in green had much higher yields.

In 1988, we were still summerfallowing a large acreage. In an early July trip through the clay belt I was raised in, we could still see the herringbone pattern of the Flexi-Coil packers behind the discers used for seeding at that time. Not only was the summerfallow bare but the seeded land also had little cover. The bare ground effect on reradiating the sun’s energy would have added to the high temperatures.

The other vivid memory of 1988 is a soil salinity trip to southern Alberta. The return trip took us from Hanna, Alta., to Saskatoon. My comment was, “On all that road, two old 90 Massey combines would handle all the fields that were fit to see a combine.”

2002: Dry but cool with little subsoil moisture

The November 1, 2001, Soil Moisture Map was made by Saskatchewan Agriculture. It showed almost all red ink (very dry category). On my Dundurn farm, the only soil moisture at seeding time was from about three inches to six inches deep. Neighbours with an air drill with proper openers were able to place the seed wheat in that bit of moisture and germination and emergence was good — nice neat rows. Yield potential was set early and the end result was less than 10 bushels per acre.

I seeded with my old discer and only about half came up. A 1.6-inch rain in June brought the rest up and it filled in nicely. The May to July rain total was six inches. The rain and cool temperatures delayed crop development.

There were two crop stages, so in-crop herbicide timing was a challenge and did not happen until late June. By mid-September we applied Roundup. By mid-October it was ripe but 20 per cent moisture. Thanks to an early flex header on my neighbour’s combine, we were able to straight combine and have it dried and delivered straight to the elevator. Final result was 18 bushels per acre net sold. More luck than good management.

All considered, 2002 was nowhere near what we are experiencing this year, in 1988 or 1961.

The morning after: How bad will the hangover be?

The big thing on many farmers’ minds is what comes next. Are we in a drought cycle that will leave us with bad yields next year and beyond?

Table 2 (below) shows yields of the drought years I have known and the year following. Clearly, 1961 was the worst, but management was much different then. Happily, in all cases, the year after was better.

Table 2: *In 1988, most RMs in the west-central area mapped as red on the Soil Moisture Map had single-digit wheat yields.

What is known and what is left to chance

I have no idea what lies ahead for precipitation and temperature. For temperature, the climate (30-year moving average) for the months that we grow crops has been stable or declining, except for September which shows a small rise.

Near future (approximately one week) temperature forecasts have improved greatly in recent years. For summer 2021, temperature forecasts have been very accurate to the point I now use them to determine work schedules at the farm. Get the grunt work done on the cool days and try to find an air-conditioned cab for the very hot afternoons.

Future precipitation is unknown. What we have learned in the past decade is a soil fully recharged with water at seeding time can produce a good crop on minimal rain, as long as it does not get too hot.

We have made soil moisture maps for three provinces as of November 1 for many years. It is a good general guide and a framework to think in, but each farm should know what available water is in the soil at freeze-up. With the quick adoption of soil moisture probes many farms will know that. Subsoil moisture will still be there until a plant root comes looking for it. You can bank on that. With a soil full of water, winter crop planning can take place with a high probability of a decent crop next year.

We are now in the potential soil moisture recharge part of the calendar — crops are done using water for this year. Unless there are several very good, general rains, the soil moisture map will have a lot of red ink (very dry category) again this year. Areas like southeast Saskatchewan, which had some good rains this year and are harvesting decent crops, will likely not have much reserves. This year’s crop will have used it all.

This year has been a prime example of the need for checking soil moisture again in the spring. In special years like 2020-21, snow can make a big difference. The 20-bushel wheat crop my renter combined recently owes much to that big November snow and blow.

Soil testing this fall will be important. If you poured on lots of nitrogen and phosphorus for a big crop to sell at big prices, it is likely much of those nutrients are still waiting in the soil for a plant root to suck them up.

Here’s hoping for better things next year!


For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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