Second winter breaks as farmers start looking to the fields

Cool-season crops may not have got in as early this year, but experts say spring will quickly catch up if the warm weather holds

It isn’t the late start that’s the biggest concern for Manitoba farmers this season — it’s the looming lack of soil moisture.

The “second winter” that gripped the Prairies has slowed things, but now that the weather has broken, things should move quickly.

Bruce Burnett, director of markets and weather information with Glacier FarmMedia, estimates that this spring may have been one of the 10 coldest on record in the Prairies.

Overnight lows in Manitoba plummeted to -20 C or below in the last week of March and first week of April, while daytime highs hovered below freezing.

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“This is widespread across the Prairies,” Burnett said. “Generally when we see late plantings, it’s one side. The north is cold and the south is warm, so the south goes, or the west is dry and the east is wet, so the west gets the crop in quickly. This year, literally no one is going because the soils weren’t even thawed.”

Despite that, Burnett says the spring will likely catch up with warm temperatures upcoming in the two-week forecast.

Manitoba’s lack of moisture may also get farmers onto the field. Dry conditions may mean easier field access for farmers more accustomed to having fields under water or a quagmire of mud this time of year.

The dry may also jump-start soil temperatures despite the extended cold, Burnett said.

“A lot depends on the weather in the first half of this month, but because we haven’t had a lot of snow cover in Manitoba — specifically in the central and eastern areas more so than farther west, but even in those areas the snow is now melted — the soil is taking advantage already of the sun radiation to help warm itself and if you combine that with some reasonably good temperatures in the forecast here, I don’t think it’s going to be a big problem to get that soil temperature up there,” he said, but added that farmers may face delays if the weather suddenly turns cold.

Dr. Brian Amiro, agrometeorology professor at the University of Manitoba, also pointed to the lack of snow cover.

Bare fields were a common sight through agricultural Manitoba this winter. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada reports that most of the province sits at 60 to 85 per cent of average precipitation since September 2017.

“When we start having that higher sun angle, a lot of that sun’s energy goes into evaporating water that’s on the field before we can start warming the soil, and this year we don’t have a lot of water sitting for a lot of parts of Manitoba,” Amiro said.

The professor expects soil to warm quickly once nighttime temperatures rise above freezing consistently.

Amiro argued that the date of the last frost also plays a role in how “late” a spring might be. That date might range through mid- to late May, he said, although rare years might have a frost in June.

Too dry?

Burnett believes there is enough topsoil moisture to germinate seed, despite the dry season in 2017 and less than impressive snowfall. At the same time, farmers will be looking for rain after seeding, given depleted groundwater reserves.

“There might be some concerns in the sandier soils,” Burnett said. “I’m thinking essentially in the central areas there where they will dry out really quickly, so we will need some showers to get those crops maybe going in that case. But the fortunate part for them is they’re usually the first ones to start because of the soil texture and it’s usually the soil that gets the warmest. I think, overall, we’re in a lot better shape than we were in, say, a flood year.”

This past weekend strong winds filled the air with dust in much of southern Manitoba, underlining concerns over dry soil and potential wind erosion.

Rainfall will play a key role in how successful seeding is, Amiro noted.

“That’s something that’s very difficult to predict,” he said. “The question is going to be, do you get average rain? Do you get more than average? Do you get less than average? If we start getting less than average rain, definitely we’re going to have some issues in places just because we don’t have that built-up soil moisture, but if we start getting some rain some time at the point when we need to have that seed germinate, that’s going to make that huge difference.”

Warm crops

Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers says it isn’t pushing the panic button yet. The recommended seeding window for soybeans is May 10-25, and MPSG director of research and production, Daryl Domitruk, says May planting is standard for the crop and there have been frost concerns in years where the crop went in during April.

Standard practice says to wait until the ground is 10 C at seeding depth before planting soybeans. But while the spring has been cold, Domitruk noted an abrupt swing in the last weeks of April.

“I think the view is that while it was a cold winter and we essentially didn’t have much of a spring, what’s happened is that we’ve flipped from winter to summer,” he said.

Neither the commodity group nor Burnett is concerned that seeding may be compressed, with early-season crops pushing into the late-seeded crop window.

“It’s something we’ll be watching,” Domitruk said. “If this was two weeks down the road and we were in the same situation, I think we’d be more concerned.”

Burnett, meanwhile, pointed to steps farmers have already taken to shorten seeding.

“It’s obviously not the best scenario because we’re going to have to do a lot of planting rather quickly. My opinion of it, and it’s only my opinion, is that we have a lot of capacity to plant right now. That’s where a lot of investments have been made, so I’m not as concerned,” he said. “It would be different if we had oodles of soil moisture around and we were waiting for things to dry out.”

Seeding was reported in Manitoba as of the last week of April.

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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