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Snow-bare cereals see deep freeze

Winter cereal crops are facing down extreme cold warnings without 
much snow buffer this winter, so what will that mean for spring?

It’s not time to panic yet on winter cereals, despite sparse snow and cold weather.

Curtis Sims of Winter Cereals Canada, and a MacGregor-area producer, says the lack of insulation and frigid weather was far from ideal but it is too early to measure spring impact.

“One always feels more comfortable with more snow, but I’ve seen it come through winters not much different than this and still be all right in the spring. If it doesn’t do anything really nasty in March, like really cold, and we get some more snow before then, we still may be all right,” he said.

The worse weather came over Christmas. Manitobans bundled up in late December after a cold snap blanketed most of Western Canada with extreme cold warnings. By the turn of the year, air temperatures plummeted to -35 C in most of Manitoba, with wind chills nearing -50 C.

At the same time, according to weather-monitoring network CoCoRaHS, only 11 centimetres of snow lay on the ground in Emerson Dec. 24 as temperatures began to dip, a potentially fatal combination for overwintering crops.

That situation was echoed in other parts of the province, although almost half a metre of snow was noted to the north and into the Interlake. Killarney reported between 15 and 20 centimetres December 24, while Morris and Niverville both reported about 28 centimetres and 27 centimetres lay over Brandon.

The situation would be worse if a similar cold snap had hit later in the winter when plant reserves were low, Sims added.

Winter cereals agronomist Ken Gross says soil temperature in Manitoba remains inside tolerances for winter wheat despite the arctic weather.

Winter wheat has a maximum tolerance of -20 to -22 C, he said, while soil temperatures have hovered around -10 C at crown depth.

“The crop across the Prairies went into the winter in pretty good shape,” Gross said. “Most of it reached the two- to three-leaf stage, which is pretty much optimum for having good reserves to make it through the winter, so that’s a good sign. And a lot of the varieties, at least in Manitoba, the varieties that are being grown now have a little more winter hardiness than some of the older ones.”

Gross did note the lack of snow cover, but added that producers are, “in good shape yet.”

Winter Cereals Manitoba says it has not yet heard an upswing in producer concern.

Declining acres

There may have been good conditions going into winter, but few fields were planted to take advantage. Statistics Canada estimates that about 70,000 acres of winter wheat and 55,000 of fall rye went into the ground in Manitoba last fall, about half of the winter wheat planted the year before and a substantial drop from the 80,000 acres of fall rye also planted in 2016.

It’s yet another acreage hit for a crop in general decline for the last five years. In 2012, 600,000 acres of winter wheat and 85,000 acres of fall rye went into the ground province-wide. Nationally, acres have also dropped, although fall rye still hovers above its 2012 levels after hitting a peak in 2016. In 2012, 2.25 million acres of winter wheat were planted, compared to 1.38 million in 2017.

In province, the most recent drop is a result of both market pressures and dry conditions during the normal seeding window, according to Doug Martin, Winter Cereals Manitoba chair.

“Talking to people on our board, no one really got winter wheat in this year,” he said.

“People just didn’t want to put it into that hard, dry soil.”

Last season’s winterkill may have also turned some producers away from the crop, Martin said. Winter cereals, particularly those in eastern Manitoba, had patchy regrowth in spring 2017 after mild weather in February and March eliminated much of the snow insulation. The same mild spell created ice patches after temperature dropped, suffocating the overwintering crop underneath.

The crop also faces competition from Manitoba’s growing list of crop choices and varieties.

Martin says winter wheat acres have been displaced by spring varieties like Prosper, as well as the exponential rise in crops like soybeans, a number that topped 2.3 million acres in Manitoba last year.

Protein spreads also factor into the decline.

“Hard red springs are probably paying $1.50 more per bushel versus what winter wheat’s worth, so that’s part of it as well for this year,” Martin said. “They’re paying quite well for protein so, high-quality wheat, there’s more value in it versus winter wheat.”

Manitobans got a brief break in the first week of January before temperatures once again dropped close to -30 C

Farmers who do get frozen out may still salvage the year with another crop, Sims noted, one of the advantages touted by Winter Cereals Canada.

“It’s the only crop you can do that with,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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