When Hail Happens
No one likes to see hail happen, but when it does it’s important to take in as much information as you can before deciding on whether or not to let the crop recover or to cut your losses.
Call you crop insurance adjuster (if you’ve got coverage.)
Assess damage. Wait a few days for a more accurate picture of just how much breakage has occurred and look for any signs of re-growth. Take into account the size of the hail and how long the storm lasted when estimating the damage.
Estimate growth stage, extent of leaf loss and stem breakage. The earlier in the season, the more chance of re-growth, however if hail has stripped most of the leaves or has broken the main stem, crops will take much longer to recover (if at all.)
Time of season. Was it a late spring? Is this crop really going to have a chance to come back and mature? Will it run too high a risk of frost? You can’t predict the weather for the balance of the season. Depending on the calendar, taking the crop off right away might be the best option.
Crop type. When considering all of the above, it’s important to weigh all the options of each crop type individually. Barley and canola can recover nicely at times, but wheat may need too many days to mature. Peas make great green feed or green manure, but don’t recover well from hail damage.
Whether you call it the big white combine in the sky or just plain bad luck, hail happens. And when it does, there’s no easy answer as to how best handle the carnage left behind. The crop type, development stage, time of year and, of course, the weather all play a role in the decision to let it grow or to, quite literally, cut your losses.
“I know most people want a nice neat answer of what to do with a hail damaged field, but the short answer is there isn’t one,” says Doon Pauly, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. “It really becomes a best guess scenario, and unfortunately, none of your options are all that good.”
When hail damage is minimal, the crop should recover even if yield and maturity are affected somewhat. At the opposite end, when a crop is heavily damaged, the choice is pretty easy — plow it under as green manure or harvest it as green feed or silage. The real difficulty, Pauly says, is in deciding what to do with a field with 40 to 50 per cent damage.
“You’re left with a crop that will mature in multiple stages. How are you going to deal with that? Spray it to dry it down? Swath it? Both options add costs,” Pauly says. “Neither option is a good one. The problem with leaving a crop to recover is that you may end up paying more in inputs to dry down or cut the crop when yield is already reduced. The economics don’t always add up.” Plus, there’s the dreaded F-word to consider with a delayed crop: frost.
If you do choose to cut the crop immediately for feed, Pauly cautions that it should be tested for nitrates and blended with low-nitrate feed as necessary. Also, be sure you’re equipped to handle the high-moisture feed, whether by using it right away or ensiling it. “For some farmers in strictly grain growing areas, salvaging a feed crop doesn’t make sense if there are no animals to feed it to,” he says.
HIGHER DISEASE THREAT
The problem with hail damage isn’t just in setting back maturity, either. Plants that are damaged and broken are left vulnerable to diseases, says Dale Risula, provincial special crops specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. For example, he’s seen fields succumb to ascochyta (chickpeas, pulses) or bacterial blight (dry beans) after hail damage. “Again, if you choose to leave a field and let it grow, are you prepared to put more inputs into the crop? It’s something to consider,” Risula says.
Depending on which crop the hail hits, you may get lucky. “Barley and canola can surprise you sometimes,” Pauly says. He’s seen both hit with hail in mid-July and come back as a decent silage and oilseed crop, respectively. Barley’s saving grace is its short growing season. Canola has indeterminate growth and can put out new shoots that eventually form pods, producing yield.
Wheat, however, usually needs too long to mature and may not make it before a frost hits. Peas hit with hail are very susceptible to disease, however they make a great green manure, salvaging some value, and can be used for feed if moisture is managed correctly. A crop such as flax can’t be salvaged for feed and can be a real mess to deal with as crop residue. It might just be best to take a chance and let it grow.
Pulses have both strikes for and against them, Risula says. “Most pulses have indeterminate growth, like canola, and can put up with a fair level of hail damage,” he says. At the same time, with severe damage, there can be very little biomass left in the field to salvage for feed, unlike a barley crop. “Pulses do fix their own nitrogen and can be a valuable green manure crop. Some organic producers grow pulses for this purpose alone, meaning it may be the most economic option with severe damage,” he says.
CALL YOUR ADJUSTER
In all cases, both experts recommend calling your crop insurance adjuster first. Some adjusters may say just to leave a test strip, but others may be able to offer up some advice on whether or not to let it grow out. There are also rules concerning termination dates that could impact your coverage the following year, so be sure to check with your local adjuster, Risula says.
“Timing is everything with hail,” Risula says, and not just because of when in the growing season hail strikes. He recommends waiting up to 10 days before making a decision. “The extent of the hail damage may not truly show up for at least three days, at which point re-growth may also be visible. By day 10, you should have a good indication as to how much regrowth, if any, you can expect.”
The general rule of thumb is the earlier in the season hail strikes, the better, as crops have the most chance of re-growth that will make it to maturity. Late season hail brings its own set of challenges. Oftentimes, hail will lodge a crop, forming mats of plant matter that may rot before it ripens. “The problem with late hail is a nearly-mature crop is now at an in-between stage. It’s not grain, because it’s too immature and wet, but it’s not feed, because it’s too mature and lacks the soluble carbohydrates for ensiling,” Pauly says.
“If the stems are relatively intact, there may still be enough nutrient flow to the heads to finish off the crop,” Risula adds, “though a desiccant is likely necessary for dry down.” If some form of harvesting is not an option, there’s still next year’s seedbed preparation to consider. The crop may still have to be mowed, baled or, in a desperate situation, burned. “Crops damaged late in the year can sometimes really surprise you, yield-wise. It’s usually worth getting in there and harvesting what you can, then dealing with the residue,” Risula says.
As Pauly says, there are really no great options for hail-damaged crops. “If I could recommend one thing, it would be for farmers to take in all the information they have in front of them at the time, make the decision they think is right and then not look back. Make the best decision you can and don’t beat yourself up over it,” Pauly says.
Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for Farm Business Communications. She is in Regina. Email her at [email protected]