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Dry conditions impacting crop yields for some Manitoba farmers

Moisture levels across the province are variable, as are crop yields, which aren’t quite disastrous

Near Robert Brunel’s farm, the Turtle River has run dry for only the third time in recollection for the oldest residents of Ste. Rose du Lac.

Robert Brunel.
photo: Allan Dawson

“We’re extremely dry,” said Brunel, who farms 6,500 acres of cropland. “We haven’t seen any significant rain all summer.”

Brunel said his hay is yielding about half a bale per acre. In his area, if you get a bale per acre “you’ve done well.” He added that some of his crops may be in crop insurance territory. His crop yields have likewise been disappointing.

“We haven’t been this dry since the ’80s,” Brunel said.

Dry conditions have persisted in the province for about three years now, but while some might be tempted to point to climate change, the explanation isn’t that simple.

Paul Bullock.
photo: Allan Dawson

“A shift from wet to dry doesn’t mean climate change,” said Paul Bullock, professor of soil science and agro-meteorology at the University of Manitoba. “You have to look much more long term to determine climate change.”

From 2005 to 2016, Manitoba had a series of wet years said Bullock. This has just shifted in the last three years.

Bullock said a “climate period” is considered 30 years — a long enough data period to even out the highs and lows.

To determine climate change, he looks at averages from the last climate period (1981 to 2011) and compares them to the previous (1950 to 1980).

Based on that data, Canada is warming, said Bullock — at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Oddly, it’s the overnight lows that are climbing, not daytime temperatures. Winters have also warmed more than summers.

Bullock also cautioned that the Prairies are a big place, and the dryness has not been consistent across them. His family’s farm, on the Saskatchewan side of Lloydminster, has actually seen a wet spell this year. Sections of northern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan have also been wet, said Bullock.

“It’s always more complex than people normally think about,” he said.

Variable yields

Within Manitoba, conditions have also been variable.

“It’s been kind of an interesting year,” said Anastasia Kubinec, manager of crop industry development at Manitoba Agriculture.

Kubinec said most areas had good moisture levels going into the spring — better than 2018 — but a cool, dry May and June resulted in some poor germination for small-seeded crops like canola. Frost further hampered progress.

The central portion of agro-Manitoba got rain in June and July, which was a “huge reprieve,” said Kubinec. July was hot, and August has been sufficiently warm that many crops are advancing normally.

Some areas have seen a prolonged dry spell, leading to poor crop establishment, shorter crops, and quicker dry downs.
photo: Jeannette Greaves

However, the Interlake and west-lake area along the east side of Riding Mountain National Park have seen a prolonged dry spell. Kubinec said she’s seeing poor crop establishment, shorter crops, and crops drying down faster.

“Is it a disaster? No it’s not,” said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and markets information at Glacier FarmMedia.

Burnett said yields will be quite variable. In general, cereals are in decent shape due to more moisture at planting. Canola has seen issues from dryness, and lower yields are to be expected. Manitoba has planted a lot of corn this year which could use rain over the next month to fill properly, he said.

Pastures suffering

Kubinec said pastures in some areas have been better than in 2018, due in part to some farmers reseeding pastures to rejuvenate them.

“It’s done quite well,” said Kubinec.

This renewal hasn’t extended to the Interlake, said Kubinec.

Burnett said pastures have been poor across the province largely because they depend on early rains, which didn’t come.

“They never recovered,” he said.

A short supply of hay this season is going to make it difficult for livestock producers.
photo: Jeannette Greaves

With hay yields down, “it’s going to be a very tight situation,” said Burnett.

West of the lake, Brunel said he’s seen people selling standing wheat for silage, and has heard talk of selling soybeans for silage also.

Burnett said dry conditions in more cattle-heavy regions may increase abandonment of cereals to be cut for silage. Likely not enough to notice statistically, he said.

Kubinec said more producers are looking at relay cropping, intercropping and cover cropping to adapt to dry conditions. She’s also seen more producers cutting sloughs and ditches for hay.

Grasshoppers surge

In Brunel’s area, grasshoppers have put further pressure on forage and pasture.

“Pastures have been devastated in the area,” he said. Brunel added that while he hasn’t had to spray for them, he’s seen grasshoppers eating canola and soybeans.

Grasshopper levels are the highest in the last decade, said John Gavloski, entomologist with Manitoba Agriculture. After low to moderate levels for a decade, dry conditions have helped the flourish.

Gavloski noted he’s seen “fairly widespread” grasshopper damage, though he’s seen much worse years in the late ’90s.

While a fourth dry year may increase populations further, Gavloski said grasshoppers’ natural predators may also rise. He said he’s seen more bee flies and blister beetles, which feed off grasshopper egg pods.

If Manitoba gets a lot of cool, wet weather in late August and early September when grasshoppers are laying eggs, this may slow them down for next year.

Manitoba still has two months of growing season left, said Kubinec. If there’s a wet September and lots of snow over winter, things could be different next year.

Brunel agreed that it’s too early to predict next year, adding he’s not sure how much fall tillage he’ll do. The ground may be too hard and dry.

Too soon to say?

According to the most recent Manitoba Agriculture crop report available at press time (the August 13 edition):

  • Less than 10 per cent of the crop is off.
  • The majority of that is winter wheat and fall rye.
  • So far yields for those appear, across the province, to be near average.
  • Early barley and oat yields so far look above average.

Last year at the same time:

  • The harvest was 16 per cent completed at the same date.
  • Even then it was the third full week of August before consistent reports of peas, spring wheat and barley appeared.
  • That will likely be similar this year, or slightly delayed.
  • Canola will take even longer, likely until the fourth week of August.
  • Due to the patchy nature of moisture this growing season, isolated reports aren’t necessarily

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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