Flood risk builds, looks to delay seeding

Snow is still piled deep on Humphrey Banack’s grain farm at a time when he’s usually tuning up his tractor for seeding.

The wettest fields before planting since the 1970s look to frustrate Canadian farmers’ zeal to sow their fields on time this spring and cash in on wheat and canola prices that are near their highest in years.

For Banack, that will mean carrying out some modest engineering and plowing trenches from slough to slough across his fields at Camrose, Alta., about 80 km southeast of Edmonton, to speed the runoff of melting snow.

“Everybody in Western Canada wants a fast melt,” said Banack, president of Alberta farm group Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, on the sidelines of the Canada Grains Council meeting in Winnipeg.

“We’re all ready to see the grass. It’s been a very, very long winter.”

Soils in Canada’s western crop belt got saturated from record rains last year, and heavy snowfall only added to the spring flooding risk.

Most of the Prairies received 1-1/2 times to more than twice their normal precipitation last spring, while rain and snow during autumn and winter were 1-1/2 times greater than usual in large pockets of the region. 

Similar conditions in North Dakota and Minnesota were swelling the Red River, which could spill its banks across key U.S. growing areas for spring wheat before moving north into Manitoba.

The U.S. National Weather Service predicted the Red will crest at a possible record high at Fargo-Moorhead, which straddles the North Dakota-Minnesota state line, as early as Sunday.

CWB hopeful

The Canadian Wheat Board expects to see less land go unseeded due to flooding than last year’s estimated 10.5 million acres, partly because high prices give farmers more motivation to plant. But the flood risk is still worrisome.

“It’s hard to estimate right now what the extent of this is going to be,” said CWB CEO Ian White. “We expect some level of (field) abandonment but we haven’t factored anything like we had last year because we think people are better prepared.”

That preparation includes buying bigger or dual tires, or even tracks, to equip tractors to navigate swampy fields and plant crops, said Kevin Hursh, a Saskatchewan farmer and agricultural writer.

Some farmers are upgrading to higher-powered tractors, he said, while seeding by airplane remains a costly last resort.

“Even if it’s darn muddy to be out seeding, I think everyone will be of the mindset to get it in when you can get it in, because that window of opportunity might be limited,” Hursh said. “You’ll see them pushing harder, pushing earlier.” 

Risk priced in

Flood angst has spilled into the electronic trading pits of ICE Futures Canada, where traders this week favoured new-crop canola futures. Old-crop July saw its premium on November whittled down to a  three-week low amid uncertainty over fresh production.

The CWB is preparing for the worst and is working with railways to move grain out of vulnerable areas. 

Canadian National Railway is further preparing for possible disruption of its daily trains between Winnipeg and North Dakota by stockpiling sandbags and removing debris along tracks, said spokesman Warren Chandler.

Canadian Pacific Railway plans to detour traffic if tracks are flooded, and is watching for damage to bridges, culverts and signals, spokesman Mike LoVecchio said.

Along with limiting the size and quality of crops, seeding delays may also determine what goes into the ground.

The longer the delays, the more tempting farmers may find shorter-season grains such as barley and oats, White said.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said in its most recent outlook on March 15 that it expects seedings of major crops to increase as they reclaim some of last season’s washed-out acres. All-wheat area looks to bounce back by seven per cent to about 22.6 million acres, while canola seeded area bumps up 10 per cent to 18.5 million acres. 

It all depends on spring weather, White said.

The U.S. National Weather Service said Tuesday that a potential major rainfall this weekend could spawn flooding in the Red River Valley, where it already forecast significant flooding.

Above-normal temperatures this week will melt snow and elevate rivers, the Manitoba government said. The Red River looks to crest in Winnipeg sometime in early May.

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