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Touring The Drought Zone

This will not go down in history as one of the big drought years in Saskatchewan. When everything is tallied, 2009 will not rival years such as 1988 and 2002 for crop-related drought losses.

In early July, the drought conditions in west-central and northwest Saskatchewan were steadily worsening. Farm group leaders and opposition politicians were sounding alarm bells. It looked as if we were on the verge of another big one.

Gradually, rains came and the situation stabilized. The rain was too late for many crops, but in most cases the situation no longer looks as bleak.

Over the August long weekend, I toured through some of the drought-affected areas of west-central Saskatchewan. My tour included areas around Eston, Brock, Kindersley, Glidden and Eatonia.

There’s a much bigger area affected and there’s a great deal of variability so a short tour doesn’t make for an expert opinion. However, the tour impressions are consistent with what producers from the region are saying.

In the hardest-hit areas, you see lots of fields that were sprayed off in early to mid-July and the short, spindly vegetation is now brown. These fields weren’t going to make a harvestable crop and so they were terminated with a herbicide application.

Crops terminated before the middle of July will have better crop insurance coverage for next year, so that was a factor in many of the decisions.

There are other fields that weren’t sprayed off that won’t see a combine either. Growth is sparse despite recent rain.

Many other fields are at variable levels of maturity, but they will produce a harvestable crop. There are cereal crops with some areas of the field already maturing and turning colour while other areas of the field have just headed out.

In general, these fields look a lot more promising than they did a few weeks ago. Some are fields that producers contemplated spraying out. Now they appear to have the potential for a 10-or even 20-bushel-per-acre crop provided the frost stays away for a while.

Lentil crops seem to have fared better than the cereals. For some reason, lentils germinated more evenly in the dry conditions and held on long enough to benefit from the rain when it finally arrived. Some lentil crops, particularly red lentils, are painfully short and will be difficult to harvest.

It’s a year when crops seeded on chem fallow really stand out. Summerfallow acreage has steadily declined over the past two decades, but there are still millions of acres left fallow every year in the traditionally drier regions of the province.

The land stores extra moisture during the fallow year meaning more moisture is available when a crop is seeded. In some years, there isn’t a significant difference in yield between recropped land and fallow. This year, there’s a big difference.

You see durum crops on chem fallow that may yield 40 bushels an acre right beside durum fields seeded on stubble that will have little or no yield. Chem fallow advocates will remember this year for a long time.

Overall, the situation in the dry region is not as dire as a month ago. In the drought of 2002, many producers didn’t have to start their combines. This year, there will be thousands of producers with poor crops, but most will have combining to do.

Saskatchewan’s total production will be below average, but barring an early frost, the shortfall will not be the magnitude of 1988 or 2002.

Kevin Hursh is a consulting agrologist and farmer based in Saskatoon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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