The damage to crops is done — but how much worse will it get?

It’s not a writeoff yet, but recovery potential is limited and a late harvest seems inevitable, says crop expert

After one of the “driest Mays on record,” producers across the Prairies are wondering how their crops are going to fare this growing season.

It’s not looking good.

“The crops are going to be substantially smaller than they have been over the past few years,” Bruce Burnett, CWB crop and weather specialist, said in an interview June 15.

“It’s too early to write things off totally, but if we get a few more weeks of dry weather, crop production is going to drop dramatically.”

An early start to seeding had many farmers hoping for an early harvest. That isn’t likely to happen, said Burnett.

“We have the crops in the dry areas growing very slowly because they’re trying to conserve moisture, and they’re not developing as they would normally,” he said.

“We’re at a point now where we’re going to be harvesting a later-than-normal crop with, in many cases, below-average yield potential.”

Scattered rain showers across the province in the middle of June offered some relief to growers, but “one-tenth to two-tenths of an inch every week is just not enough.”

“There has to be at least 25 to 50 millimetres in these dry areas. Anything less is really not going to do enough.”

precipitation map of Alberta

Early-seeded crops have emerged, he said, but are growing slowly. In some cases, producers are seeing spotty emergence or no emergence at all.

“They look reasonable for the growing season that they’ve had, but the yield potential is being impacted every day that we remain dry,” said Burnett. “Even if we do get some rains here over the next two weeks, the amount that the crops can recover in terms of yield is probably limited.”

Crops that were seeded later, like canola, are “particularly bad.”

“There’s some canola fields that have one or two plants emerged, and the rest of the field is waiting for the first rain,” he said. “In those circumstances, if we do get the rains, the crops are going to be so late that they’ll probably be damaged by frost in the fall.

“We’re starting to run out of calendar time for some of these fields.”

Stunted pastures

It’s the same story for pastures and hayfields, said Grant Lastiwka, forage specialist for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“The situation isn’t good,” he said. “We have got a situation where we’re looking at a pittance on pasture and in hay stands, compared to what we should have.”

In an Alberta Crop Conditions report released on June 12, AFSC reported pastures were performing poorly in most of the province, with the exception of southern Alberta and some of the Peace Country.

But there’s still some hope, Lastiwka said. Compensatory plants will try to make up the loss once moisture arrives. And unlike field crop producers, grazers have some options to weather the dry conditions.

“We have to make some decisions in dry conditions,” said Lastiwka. “We know that it will rain, but until such time, we want to allow those plants on the majority of our forage land to be able to come back and be the best they can be.”

In some pastures, he said, producers may want to hold off on grazing until enough production is in place. Producers can also choose a pasture as a “sacrifice area,” where certain pastures aren’t grazed until fall.

Because of the high prices, it’s also a good time to invest in pasture fertility.

“If it really rains in July, I would look at getting out there with some fertilizer and other things, knowing I would get compensatory growth and that I want to exploit it to its fullest potential,” said Lastiwka, adding that a blend of nutrients will work best.

“Many of the older hay stands have been down for quite a while, and investing in them might mean another hay cut or a fall grazing. As soon as we get the moisture for fertility to work, it is an option that is a profitable one.”

But each operation will need to manage their pastures differently, he added.

“Everybody will have a different set of options, based on what they have and they need to take different moves with what they have.”

For field crop producers, the options are more limited, said Burnett.

“Farmers are going to have to start thinking about crop insurance, and if they have a diversified operation where they have some cattle, they’re going to have to look at cutting some of this crop up for feed,” he said.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens here.”

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