Prairie flooding delays seeding two weeks so far

Farmers in flooded Western Canada look to plant at least two weeks later than normal as average to heavy snowpack melts on saturated fields and causes rivers to overflow.

The most optimistic scenario would see farmers in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the two biggest producers of wheat and canola, start planting in early May, assuming that the last half of April brings warm, dry weather, provincial agriculture officials said on Wednesday.

“It’s going to take a lot of heat to dry that water up so they can get on the fields. Right now, everything looks like a swamp around here,” said crop specialist Harry Brook at Alberta’s provincial Ag-Info Centre at Stettler.

Canada is the world’s top exporter of spring wheat, durum, canola and oats.

Wet conditions last year across the Prairies slowed plant maturity and left crops vulnerable to quality-reducing frost. Canada’s disappointing wheat crop added to a global shortage of milling-quality supplies.

Environment Canada is forecasting daytime temperatures only slightly above freezing this week for most of the Prairies, with rain and snow at times in all three provinces.

Southern Alberta farmers, who grow mostly canola, barley and peas, often start seeding in early April, but not this year because temperatures have not been warm enough to quickly melt snow and dry soils, Brook said.

Much of south, central and eastern Alberta received snowfall this winter at levels normally seen only once every 25 years, said Ralph Wright, the province’s soil moisture specialist at Edmonton.

Saskatchewan wettest

Flooding is even more extreme in Saskatchewan, which absorbed the brunt of record rains last year.

The outlook for planting has improved in some areas, however, after recent warm, windy weather melted much of the snow, said Grant McLean, the provincial agriculture department’s cropping management specialist at Moose Jaw.

Last year, Saskatchewan farmers filed crop insurance claims for nearly 6.9 million acres, an all-time high, according to the provincial government.

Recent melting has produced widespread flooding, but with favorable weather farmers might be able to start planting by the second week of May, about two weeks later than normal.

“In the east part of the province, that may be optimistic,” McLean said. “I guess the worst-case scenario would be if we had a wet system moving across in mid-May.”

As of April 1, the potential for spring flooding was very high in most of southeastern Saskatchewan, where farmers favour canola and oats, and higher than normal in the rest of the crop belt, the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority said.

Eastern Saskatchewan still has plenty of snow, but farmers will still be keen to plant high-priced canola, McLean said.

Bracing for Red

Heavy autumn rain left virtually all of southern Manitoba fields saturated, and high levels on the Red, Assiniboine and smaller rivers are causing fields to flood.

Farmers are already behind the planting pace of last year, when warm, dry weather gave them a head start, said Manitoba cereals specialist Pam de Rocquigny at Carman.

In Manitoba, farmers normally start planting around May 1, around the time this year that the Red River is projected to crest at near-record levels.

The wet conditions will not likely change farm plans to seed staples such as wheat and canola, but farmers may opt for more soybeans and fewer acres of smaller crops such as sunflowers and edible beans, she said.

Saskatchewan will release its first crop report of 2011 on Thursday. Statistics Canada releases its first look at seeding intentions on April 26, based on a farmer survey.



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