For Alberta growers right now, the biggest clouds on the horizon are the lack of them — particularly the ones bringing rain.
“It’s a real mixed bag throughout the province with some of the weather conditions that we’ve been dealt,” Rimbey-area producer Jason Lenz said earlier this month.
“Certainly the south has some very, very dry pockets where the crops are suffering. In central Alberta and as you go north, the crops are in pretty decent shape, but we’ve had some scattered, pretty severe storms that have produced some real big hail that we don’t normally see.
“That’s just par for the course here in Alberta.”
In the central and northern parts of the province, producers have had “an adequate amount of moisture,” with surface soil moisture levels rated as 70 per cent good to excellent as of July 11. But conditions are dry in southern Alberta, with surface soil moisture levels rated as 27 per cent good to excellent — down 19 per cent from early July.
“The last few years, we’ve had very good rain down there during the growing season,” said provincial crop specialist Harry Brook. “Even the dryland guys were getting really good crops. This year, the tap turned off early.”
Other growers are still contending with the after-effects of last year’s wet conditions at harvest. The unharvested acres — along with wet spring conditions — delayed seeding by as much as two weeks for some growers.
“The majority of guys got crops in, but some of them seeded quite a bit later than they normally would,” said Brook.
And there are still a significant amount of acres in Alberta that remain unseeded, he said. As of July 7, there were approximately 508,000 unseeded acres in the province, according to the most recent figures from Agriculture Financial Services Corporation.
Producers in northern Alberta were hit hardest by the wet weather in both the fall and spring, but growers in Lenz’s area of central Alberta fared much better.
“If you had asked me on April 25 — when we had that last snowstorm in central Alberta — if we would have got started at close to normal time, I would have said no,” said Lenz. “But for the most part, I think everyone got their crops in the ground here in central Alberta five days to a week later, and that’s resulted in some pretty nice-looking crops.
“We’re used to challenges like that. I think guys did a real good job of getting what they could into the ground in a fairly timely fashion. We’re just going to have to hope for an open fall to be able to get them off in good shape.”
Yield potential still there
Despite the late start to spring, producers may still be surprised by their quality and yield this harvest, said Brook.
“Up to a certain extent, the crop will compensate,” he said, noting seed germinates much faster in warmer soils than cooler ones earlier in the season.
“Even if it’s seeded late, you can still get a decent crop out of it. The potential is there.”
That’s what Lenz is hoping, too.
“I haven’t heard reports of guys expecting bumper crops, but right now, I think we can expect average to above-average crops.”
And strong prices make “things look a lot better,” said Brook. “Even if the crop isn’t ideal, when you’ve got a good price, it kind of eases the pain.”
But the dry conditions in southern Alberta could make it difficult for producers there to take advantage of strong prices, particularly in wheat and canola crops.
“Our main concern is whether we’re going to have an average or above-average crop this year,” said Tom Steve, general manager of Alberta Wheat. “The more days that it doesn’t rain, the greater the risk that we won’t be able to take advantage of market opportunities.”
Even so, the crops are holding up “exceedingly well” despite the drought conditions, Steve added.
“I think that’s a reflection of the change in farming practices over the last 30 years or so, where farmers have adopted minimum tillage and they’re doing a fantastic job of improving the soil,” he said.
“Twenty-five or 30 years ago with dry conditions like this, the crops would be essentially written off by now. In a lot of cases, they’re surviving because of the improvement in farming practices and the genetics we have.”
“With the general adoption of zero or minimum tillage, it made a huge difference on crop yields with restricted water levels,” he said.
“We’ve probably had some summers that have been drier than the ‘Dirty ’30s’ were, yet nowadays you don’t see those clouds of dirt flying around.”
And the dry conditions may actually be helping reduce disease pressure this year, particularly with fusarium head blight.
“There’s one thing that everyone is becoming more and more aware of here in Alberta, and that’s the risk of fusarium spreading,” said Lenz.
“We’ve all seen how that disease seems to be spreading more west and north all the time. It has become not a matter of if but when we’re all affected by that disease.
“If you want to talk about black clouds, that’s the one that everyone has their eyes on.”
But in drier conditions, “usually you’re not going to see a lot of disease pressure,” said Brook.
“Last year was a good year for the development and spread of diseases,” said Brook.
“This year may not be a year where it pays to spray, but it’s a warning sign to take it into account. You don’t know what weather you’re going to get. It may be dry this year, but it could be wet next year.
“This year shows that you can do everything right in your management, but if the weather works against you, you can fail.”