By Jamie Rieger
Without a doubt, conditions are dry out there for dryland farmers and cattle producers. Over the past several weeks only sporadic rainfall has fallen and coupled with an early spring runoff and high temperatures, it’s no wonder southeast Alberta is in a drought situation.
Not since the 1999-2004 drought has the pastures and dryland crops been as thirsty as they are this year.
According to an Alberta Financial Services report on crop conditions that was released last week, the crops in southern Alberta and throughout the province are not in a healthy state.
While recent precipitation provided some benefits to southeast Alberta producers, and improved sub-surface soil moisture only minimally in the southern part of the province. Crop condition ratings dropped three percentage points over the first week of July, with ratings declining in all regions of the province.
“Hay and pastures are in dire need of moisture,” the report reads.
Hay and pasture reports fell to only 12 percent being rated good or excellent. In the south region, 44% of hay/pasture conditions are being rated as poor, 38.1 percent as fair, 16.3 percent are being rated as good, and only .7 percent are being rated as in excellent condition.
According to the report, pasture growth is so poor that it can not keep up with the grazing and hay yields could be less than 50 percent of average.
Aaron Brower, who ranches in the southernmost part of the province, said some cattle producers are selling off part of their herd, some are cutting their crops now for feed, some cattle are being shipped out-of-province, and others are dipping into their winter supply.
“Hay is pretty expensive and guys are dumping their cattle. Some guys have a month of feed left and are using their winter supply now, so what are they going to do this winter? Right now, we are paying $250 to $300 a tonne for hay. You do the math. It doesn’t take long at these prices to start having a serious impact,” said Brower.
“Pairs have dipped (in price), but still getting a decent return,” he added. “And for the guys in community pastures, what is going to happen if there is no grass. Their cattle will go to auction and they won’t be able to build up their herd.”
Brower said they received about an inch of rain at their ranch at the beginning of the month, but it came too late for the grazing pastures.
“We’ll take it, of course, but it came about three weeks too late. The grass season is done,” said Brower, adding that they are cutting their barley for silage now.
“We aren’t that bad yet, but this could be an expensive year,” he said.
The AFSC report gives somewhat better results for crops, but does not paint a rosy picture for this year’s crops in southern Alberta.
Canola received a particular bad report card, with 35 percent of the crops being rated poor, 43.6 percent fair, 20.7 percent good, and .7 percent excellent.
Barley has also taken a hard hit with 26.5 percent being rated poor, 46.8 percent rated fair, 25.7 percent good, and a mere .9 percent being rated as being in excellent condition.
Spring wheat and oats have not performed much better with spring wheat showing 23.9 percent as poor and oats at 28.5 percent. Both showed less than one percent being in excellent condition.
The best producing crop thus far has been the dry beans with 20.4 percent being rated poor, 42.5 percent fair, 35.6 percent good, and 1.5 percent excellent.
David Yancie, who farms in the Foremost area, said he feels blessed that the past few years have been productive and there was some sub-surface soil moisture heading into this growing season.
“All of that sub-surface moisture and with the recent rain will make all the difference in those heads filling out,” said Yancie, adding that he still expects to get 30 bushels an acre on his cereals.
“The peas are doing quite well; I’m getting seven peas in a pod. Peas do not like a lot of water, plus they are bigger seeds so are planted deeper,” he added.
Yancie, who also has about 200 head of cattle, has them currently grazing on his triticale field, rather than in a pasture where the grass was finished prior to the rainfall at the beginning of the month.
“If that rain had come one week later, it would not have helped us at all,” said Yancie.
Neil Whatley, crop specialist for Alberta Agriculture said the spotty rain showers that have been received in some areas may have been beneficial for some dryland farmers.
“The problem is this year is that there has been no general rainfall. There have been pockets of showers that have helped to carry some crops. The Etzikom, Manyberries, and One Four areas really need some good rain,” said Whatley. “It’s not a case of too little too late, but for those who haven’t received any of these rain pockets, it’s going to be a long year.”
Peas tend to be faring somewhat better than other crops, according to Whatley.
“Peas got off to a good start because they are a larger seed that is seeded deeper. They got good germination and a good root system,” said Whatley.
“Cereals have larger seeds than canola, which has a small seed and is planted shallower. There may have been germination issues with canola this year. In fact, some canola did not germinate. So, then in those spots you could have weeds taking over,” he added.
Multiple consecutive hot, dry days during the flowering stage of the plant is when most of the damage can be done.
“When you get two or three days of 30+ degree weather when the peas and canola are flowering, you could get flower blasting. The plants can handle one or two days, but anything longer than that, there will be flower abortions,” said Whatley. “So, the ones that have already flowered and the ones still to produce flowers when the heat hits, will still produce, but the once in the flowering stage will not. If they were able to seed early, they may have got past the flowering stage when the heat hit. Those crops should be all right.”
Producers who incorporate drought management plans and optimize their operations to retain soil moisture are likely thankful they have those plans in place.
“Zero-till farming and improved openers on seed drills have helped farmers in retaining the sub-surface soil moisture. These create better soil water retention and that translates into less of a problem during dry times. The cattle guys, on the other hand, are suffering,” said Whatley.
The drier, hotter weather may be doing nothing for the yields, but it is keeping diseases at bay.
“When we get dry and hot, we are not going to have the disease that we get in wetter years, but we are going to get more pests,” said Whatley, adding that the grasshoppers have already emerged and are flying in the Peace region.
Dave Matz, Ag fieldman for the County of Forty Mile said they are expecting more grasshoppers in the county than what was present last year.
“It’s a bit early to tell yet, but I will have a better idea by the beginning of August. There were lots last year and we are expecting the grasshoppers to be worse this year,” said Matz.