Manitoba farmers confronted with a dry spring

Much of agro-Manitoba is sitting at 30 per cent or less of normal precipitation since November, and that’s not counting the dry fall beforehand

ABOVE: Little snow remains on fields near Brandon in mid-March.

Agro-meteorologists have good news and bad news.

The good news is: chances are you’re getting onto your field early this spring — in fact, the first reports of field work in central Manitoba have already started trickling in over social media.

The bad news is: those worries you had about a dry spring are coming true, at least in the short and medium term.

Why it matters: Last year’s dry growing season has carried over into dry spring conditions, and while more moisture is expected later in the season, the start of 2021 isn’t offering much when it comes to rain.

If you haven’t been out to the field lately — fields that, this time of year, typically look more like lakes — Manitoba is definitely dry.

For almost all of southwestern and central Manitoba, 30 per cent or less of normal precipitation fell on the region from the start of November to March 14, while the driest regions saw only 14 per cent of normal. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has almost all of agro-Manitoba in a drought as of Feb. 28. According to AAFC’s Canadian drought monitor, the province ranged from “abnormally dry” along its eastern edge, to “moderate drought” in the southeast and northern Interlake and “severe drought” almost everywhere else.

Bruce Burnett. photo: File

Parts of Manitoba saw, “one of the driest winters on record,” Bruce Burnett of MarketsFarm said, although he noted that parts of the northwest caught some snowfalls missed by other regions. “It’s going to be, depending on the location, the third or fifth driest, somewhere in that range.

“I think that’s why everyone’s concerned, and rightfully so,” he added.

Some areas in the northwest and southeast saw slightly more precipitation, according to the province’s ag weather network.

There is also little hope of rain in the next weeks through April, while temperatures are expected to remain high, Burnett also said.

“There still is time, but especially when you see this warmer-than-normal temperature trend continuing through March and into the first part of April, it does raise those concerns.”

For Warren McCutcheon of Carman, the dry trend has stretched well back into July of last year.

Their crop was saved last year by good subsoil moisture, he noted. This year, however, Carman joined the rest of the province reporting subaverage precipitation.

“We didn’t have a top-up in the fall after harvest. We’ve had basically no snow here all winter,” he said, noting it was the first year in decades that the farm snowblower never moved.

Warren McCutcheon. photo: Courtesy Warren McCutcheon

“It’s kind of a nervous feeling, when you just don’t have that luxury that we had last year where you had some good soil reserve moisture; you’ve got some saturated soils in the springs, some good snowmelt,” he said. “You just don’t have that backup plan right now to get it started or get us through some drier stretches. We’re going to be 100 per cent reliant on some timely rains throughout the season this year.”

Also a director with the Manitoba Crop Alliance, McCutcheon’s story matches what he’s heard from other farmers across the province.

There is more awareness of moisture conservation this spring, he noted — things like direct seeding, a potentially earlier start or minimal tillage.

At the same time, he noted, fields are in good shape for an early start. The same dry fall last year also allowed a good window for fall fertilizer and prep work, he said, and he hopes to cash that in for direct-seeding opportunity this spring.

Hay worries

The largest concern, however, might be held for livestock and forage producers seeing echoes of spring 2019 and still fighting the cumulative effects of similarly tough growing years.

Like this year, producers in 2019 were coming off of a dry fall the year before, followed by little snowfall, and little forecast for rain coming into the spring. Forage supplies and pastures got off to a poor start that year, a year that ended with widespread feed shortages.

“A dry start to spring is not what we need in terms of the pastures,” Burnett noted. “The pastures were in pretty rough shape last year by the end of the grazing season and I’d really like to see some starting moisture here as we start to get into the spring time frame.”

John McGregor, hay expert with the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, shares the concern.

Last year proved to be a better feed year, McGregor said. Prior to that, however, the province saw feed concerns in both 2018 and critically low feed levels in 2019. Extended feeding seasons have also turned into a repeated problem, both as pastures fail to green in the spring, and run out early in the fall.

“The key here is, I think, for a lot of producers is try and plan ahead just in case we go into another drought,” he said.

“Producers who have been overgrazing pastures from 2018 and on, really, if they can, should be giving those pastures a chance to adequate growth, eight to 10 inches, before they start to graze it,” he added. “Allow the roots to develop. Possibly, if they’ve got plants that are the deep-rooted type like the orchardgrasses and the meadow bromes or the alfalfas, is again, to leave enough top growth once they’re grazing it so that those roots can continue to go downwards looking for moisture.”

Producers may wish to consider planting annuals for forage, he said. Forage insurance deadlines are also at the end of March, he said, noting that the concern with this year’s growing season might warrant a second look at that option.

Stand survival, however, is likely to be a silver lining this year, he added. The mild winter gave little reason to fear winterkill, he said, while the few cold stretches likely did not lower soil temperature to the critical -12 to -15 C range.

Water supply is yet another concern. The water table was “exceptionally high,” in previous years, Burnett noted, although several years of dry conditions have started to show effects on water levels, a state of affairs not helped by the lack of run-off recharge this spring.

Waiting for rain

Burnett is, however, expecting some relief later in the season. Long-term trends will likely bring closer-to-average precipitation as the storm track (currently well to the south of the province) shifts, he said.

“I don’t think the growing season itself is going to be drier than normal, but again, the dry start does give some concerns for getting crops established,” he said, noting especially those smaller-seeded crops like canola or flax more vulnerable to a dry planting.

McCutcheon, likewise, is being careful how hard he wishes for the sky to open up.

“We’ve been caught the other way in Manitoba so many times before where things can change so quickly and before you know it you’re draining fields and you’re dealing with water and spring storms. It’s just so hard to judge this early on,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

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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