Too dry in some areas — harvest started as early as late July, but in some cases not much crop to combine — while on the other end of the scale it doesn’t want to quit raining, with some crops drowned out and harvest likely to be delayed. Those are the extremes.
Conditions on other farms heading into harvest season fall somewhere in the middle, according to producers contacted for the August Farmer Panel. It’s a mixed bag of conditions out there.
While the weather is always a wild card, according to these producers across Western Canada, it has been a challenging year. Depending on where you farm, it might have been too dry or too wet at times. For some, rain came in the nick of time to prevent a writeoff. A very cool spring, bugs and crop diseases in some areas, and that might have been followed by a heat wave. For many, there is an average crop waiting to be harvested — provided there is no early killing frost or snow.
In summary, it is called farming in Western Canada, with producers expecting the unexpected. Here is what Farmer Panel members had to say about crop conditions in their areas as harvest season began.
John Guelly farms in a pocket of Alberta where too much moisture is an issue. At the time of an early. August interview, they’d just had another inch of rain in 15 minutes that fell on already saturated soil. One nearby county had been declared an agricultural disaster area due to too much rain.
“That inch of rain probably won’t make things a whole lot worse because the ground is already saturated and that rain will just run to the low spots,” says Guelly, who farms near Westlock. The season got off to a pretty decent start with good soil moisture for seeding, then it turned dry through May, “and then the flood gates open in June and July,” he says. “I’m hoping the tap gets turned off as we head into harvest.”
Guelly says the Westlock, Barr-head and Neerlandia area northwest of Edmonton has already had three years of tough harvest conditions, and he’s hoping this isn’t the fourth. He’s growing canola, malt barley and wheat this year.
“Both 2016 and 2017 were tough years with early snow that forced a lot of crop to be left out over winter,” he says. “Last year there was heavy smoke in the area during the summer which delayed crop maturity. We had some early snow but then there was a decent stretch in late September which provided a window for quite a bit of crop to be harvested.”
As of early August, Guelly expected harvest to be delayed by at least a week. He figures about 10 per cent of his seeded acres are already flooded out. Crops are lodged and he’s expecting lodged crops and high moisture could lead to disease.
He’s hoping it stops raining so the ground will dry out. “I may need to swath everything this year,” says Guelly, who usually straight cuts cereals. “I may need to swath so I can pick up lodged crops, or I may need to swath just to help the ground dry out. A lot will depend on what the weather does over the next two or three weeks.”
It is a very dry story in southern Alberta, says Kevin Serfas who along with family members owns Serfas Farms at Turin, north of Lethbridge.
Serfas, who is growing canola, feed barley, corn and quinoa this year, started combining barley in late July — one of his earliest starts yet on a crop that hung on with very little moisture.
“It has just been a very dry growing season,” says Serfas, with as little as four to seven inches of rain reported over the Lethbridge area since seeding. “There is too much there to write off the crop, but hardly enough to pay for the combine.”
Considering Alberta research that shows “under good environmental conditions” it takes one inch of rain to produce every six bushels of wheat, or eight bushels of barley or four bushels of canola per acre, Serfas expects everything will be “light.”
Isaac Edler says while his crops are nothing to write home about, he’s surprised how good they look, considering a generally dry growing season.
Edler, who is part of a family-run, mixed farming operation near Youngstown in southeast Alberta says it was the “strange and shockingly good timing” of rainfall that carried the crop through.
“Crops are looking OK, especially considering the crazy dry start,” says Edler who is growing canola, yellow peas, hard red spring wheat and feed barley for greenfeed this year. “I actually seeded a bit later this year because it was so dry, and there was a bit of rain just as the crops were emerging, so the timing was good.”
As of the early-August interview, the yellow peas were beginning to change colour and with a chance of rain in the forecast, he was debating on whether to cut the barley for greenfeed or wait a day. “The barley is looking OK, but hay crops certainly aren’t great,” says Edler. “I may cut some of the wheat for greenfeed as well. It’s looking OK but I may need the feed.” He’ll keep the calves from his commercial cow-calf herd for backgrounding over winter so will need feed for about 500 head.
“Overall, with the help of some timely rain, I’m guessing the crop will be about average,” he says. “But we won’t really know until it’s in the bin.”
TANNIS AND DEREK AXTEN
Timely rainfall helped the crops on Tannis and Derek Axten’s farm at Minton in southern Saskatchewan make it through to harvest in reasonably good condition.
“It started out quite dry,” says Tannis Axten. “May and well into June we really had no rain, but then in mid-June and after, we have had timely rains which helped keep things growing.”
The Axtens were harvesting fall rye and triticale in early August with other crops in their rotation still a ways off at the time of the interview. Along with the rye and triticale, they are also growing combination (intercrop) crops of forage peas with mustard, and camelina with lentils. Single or straight crops in their rotation include oats, barley, spelt, chickpeas and Red Fife wheat. (Red Fife is one of the first bread wheats grown in Canada reported to be first planted by Dave Fife on his Ontario farm in 1842. While it was popular in the early 1900s, it has long been replaced by more modern wheat varieties, although as a heritage variety with good milling qualities it has seen a resurgence in specialty markets in the last 15 to 20 years.)
As a no-till farming operation focusing on soil health (often referred to as regenerative agriculture), the Axtens plan a rotation with an emphasis on plant diversity and keeping crops growing at all times. Axten says after the fall rye and triticale are harvested, those fields will be seeded to cover crops.
With timely moisture and “fortunately no hail,” Axten says although crops are a bit later they are expecting yields to be about average.
Shoal Lake, Man.
After a dry, cooler and insect-troubled start to the growing season, Mark Pawluk says timely rains have helped crops on his Manitoba farm catch up to average condition by early August with harvest still a few weeks away.
“It was a tough start but crops are looking pretty decent considering the year,” says Pawluk who farms with family members near Shoal Lake in west-central Manitoba. He’s growing spring wheat, canola and soybeans this year.
“We didn’t have much moisture at seeding,” he says in an early- August interview. “And then insects were a problem with our canola. We did get some timely rains in June and right now we could use more moisture to help finish things off.”
Pawluk says it will probably be about the third week of August before he desiccates wheat ahead of straight combining. Last year the season was a bit earlier, but then crops were caught by early frost and snow. As a bit of a hedge against potential adverse weather he plans to straight combine about half of his canola and swath the other half. “Early frost or snow doesn’t offer an awful lot of forgiveness so we will be ready for whatever might come and hopefully the weather stays good.”
All things considered, he says the crop looks about average.
Farming is “always about the weather,” says Myron Krahn who farms near Carman in southern Manitoba.
His area faced a challenging growing season on several fronts, with conditions cool and dry at seeding and then hot and dry well into June. Then he had to deal with flea beetles on canola, cutworms in a few places in soybeans “and the grasshoppers are still having a great time out there,” says Krahn in an early-August interview.
He had already combined perennial ryegrass seed, with yields about two-thirds of average, “which was disappointing although not unexpected considering the growing season,” he says. Wheat and oats were next in line for combining in early August.
“My birthday is August 10 and I remember missing several birthday parties because of harvest,” says Krahn. “I’d say we are on track for that harvest schedule again this year. So, despite a slow start, everything is about on average timewise. It has been hot and dry for the past five weeks so that really brought crops along to maturity.”
Krahn is hoping for rain in August to help the corn and soybeans. “Corn and soybeans are the bulk of the acres on our farm and they are really struggling,” he says. “Rain isn’t going to do much for cereals or canola at this point, but it can help the corn and soybeans. If we get some rain those crops are still to be made, but if not, they are going to be going backwards shortly.”
Farming is a crazy business, he says. “Some days we’re praying for rain and the next thing you know it starts raining and doesn’t stop and then there is too much. If only there could be a balance. But I have been at this long enough to know you just get up every day and take what comes.”