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In a year of extremes, soil moisture rebound a bright spot

The rain, snow, and cold in early fall had one upside — it recharged soil moisture reserves in much of the province

This year’s harvest was tough, but there is one good thing about it: Soil moisture and subsoil moisture are at almost normal levels in most of the province.

“The soil moisture is looking better than it was at the end of August,” said Harry Brook, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “It’s closer to normal or better. The rating of subsoil moisture has improved dramatically.”

The south was drier than the rest of the province, so its subsoil moisture won’t be quite as good, which is usually the case, he said.

But a turnaround in mid-October — when snow, rain, and cold gave way to warm temperatures and drying winds — was a blessing.

“When everything was so dark and dreary and people were saying, ‘My god it’s another disaster,’ all of a sudden, things turned around,” said Brook, adding many farmers were becoming extremely anxious.

While crop quality took a big hit because of the snow and rain in the early fall, the moisture will pay dividends next year. Most of central Alberta and all of southern Alberta had dried right out in the summer, he noted.

“In some parts, it was the driest it had been in 50 years,” said Brook, adding there was a lot of variation in soil moisture levels in the province.

“It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “Around Acadia Valley in the southeast part of the province, they had moderately high moisture. In Special Area 2, they had normal moisture.”

The area around Medicine Hat was extremely dry and there was a big band of dryness from Red Deer to Lloydminster, but the Peace Region was pretty average from June until August, he said.

From Aug. 15 to Oct. 15, precipitation picked up in the form of rain or snow, and the whole province had record-low temperatures for September and the first half of October.

“It’s weird,” said Brook. “We’re having much more extremes.”

The cold and wet in September also created a host of problems.

“There have been cases of sprouted grain in the swath,” said Brook. “I don’t know about the standing swath, but the snow really screwed up a lot of guys’ cereal crops because it flattened them. So harvest was slower than what it would have been.”

There was also a lot of lodging, forcing many producers to harvest at half or a third of normal speed.

In the Peace region — where many producers had been looking at one of their best crops ever — it was hit hard by killing frosts in September.

“Their harvest was further behind,” he said. “Guys were blaming smoke (from forest fires in B.C.) as having a real effect on maturity. Despite the heat, the crops were not advancing as fast as they should have. They were blaming the smoke for delayed maturity.”

The killing frost in the Peace and the northwest came in the fourth week of August, before anyone had done any of their harvesting.

“Then there was about three weeks with 5 C as a high and lots of moisture,” said Brook. “They got damaged. They had a lot of frost, about 5 to 6° of frost overnight. A lot of that would have downgraded the quality into the feed quality or maybe a three.”

After a hot, dry summer, normal (the bright-green colour) is looking pretty good when it comes to soil moisture. The rebound in soil moisture reserves was the upside of the snow and rain in September and early October. However, there are dry areas in parts of Alberta, including one-in-50-year lows in the northern Peace around La Crete. There are also concerns that if there is a lack of snow this winter, topsoil will dry out before spring.
photo: GRAPHIC: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

According to provincial crop reporting, southern Alberta harvested about 75 per cent of a normal crop. Central Alberta and the northeast and northwest, were plus or minus five to 10 per cent of average. Pastures in much of the province saw big drops in productivity.

“It wasn’t a disaster on the crop end of things, but it was a lot harder on the livestock side,” Brook said.

But now moisture levels are pretty good, almost close to average and subsoil moisture levels are good as well.

“Because we got the moisture and we got some heat, we even started to see some regrowth in some of the pastures that went dormant,” said Brook. “They started greening up a bit. It’s a good sign going into the winter.

“But it depends. All we need is cold, dry conditions and with no snow cover, you can still get losses of moisture — even (when it’s) below zero — on the topsoil. But at least it did provide some significant moisture into the soil reserves.”

All in all, “this year was a mixed bag,” he said.

March and April were colder and snowier than usual while May and June were warm.

“It seems we got a higher degree of variability month to month,” said Brook. “You never know what you’re going to get. We’re oscillating to the extremes rather than getting a kind of average.”

Brook said he hopes that the winter is mild, for the sake of the livestock sector, which is scrambling for feed.

“The majority of fields have been baled, a lot more than normal. Guys are feeding a lot of straw this winter because hay prices are through the roof.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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