Dry winter on Prairies a worry for cattle, winter wheat

Canada’s Prairie farm belt is the driest it has been in five years, raising concerns for cattle and winter cereals in a region that has been recently more prone to floods.

Large pockets of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have received less than 40 per cent of normal precipitation during the past three months, especially northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta around Lloydminster and in southwestern Manitoba, according to federal agriculture department maps.

The rest of the Prairies have mostly collected between 40 and 85 per cent of normal amounts of rain and snow.

"We have a lot of winter ahead of us and things can change in a hurry," said Trevor Hadwen, agroclimate specialist for the federal government’s Drought Watch program. "(But) the fall period was very dry on the Prairies and that is a concern."

Mild temperatures have been favourable for cattle, but dry conditions are a major concern to ranchers who rely on snow to replenish dugouts that will water their cattle in spring, said Travis Toews, a rancher near Beaverlodge, Alta.

"The severe lack of moisture (from) late summer right through ’til now, it has us wondering what the spring might hold," said Toews, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

In 2009, Alberta had a severe drought that extended into summer, stunting pasture growth and forcing ranchers to scramble to find other ways to feed cattle.

However, Environment Canada is forecasting colder and wetter conditions than usual for January through March, consistent with the usual impact of the La Nina weather phenomenon, Hadwen said.

Months away

Dryness in parts of Argentina and Brazil have driven up grain markets in recent weeks on fears of lower corn and soybean yields. With the exception of fall-seeded cereals, Canadian crops are still months away from seeding.

The Prairies are Canada’s biggest growing region for wheat, canola and oats, and the most important cattle-raising region.

Warm, dry autumn conditions were ideal for farmers finishing up the harvest, but they also prevented soil moisture levels from rebuilding before winter, Hadwen said. A lack of winter precipitation added to short moisture levels, but it is too early for farmers to worry much about seeding prospects, he said.

"A spring storm can make that up real quick."

Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of spring wheat, canola and oats, and the third-biggest beef shipper. Flooding in parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba during the past two years left some farmers unable to plant and slowed crop growth.

Winter wheat, which makes up about 12 per cent of Canadian wheat production, needs snow cover before damaging, colder temperatures arrive, and also to keep more soil moisture from evaporating, said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and market analysis for the Canadian Wheat Board.

Ontario, which grows most of Canada’s winter wheat, has had closer-to-normal precipitation for the past three months.

Moisture levels have plenty of time to improve before farmers plant crops in spring, Burnett said.