The dreaded ‘D’ word: drought

Producers eye desiccated fields and dropping dugouts while worriedly watching for rain

“It appears as though kind of the worst-case scenario for spring conditions has developed.” – Tyler Fulton, Manitoba Beef Producers.

When asked how he’s feeling about the season, all Tyler Fulton, president of the Manitoba Beef Producers, can say is “anxious.”

He has reason to be.

Like most farmers in Manitoba, Fulton is watching his early concern over a looming drought year come into sharp focus.

Why it matters: Producers were worried the province was in for a dry year back in March. There’s been little so far to prove them wrong.

Back in March, agrometeorologists and production specialists were already raising concern on low soil moisture reserves and lack of run-off. Agricultural regions across the province reported less than half — and in some areas, well less than 20 per cent — of their normal rain and snowfall since the start of November.

Now well into seeding, producers have yet to see conditions improve, despite a late snowfall across southern Manitoba.

“We haven’t been rescued yet,” Bruce Burnett, director of weather and markets information with MarketsFarm, said. “If we’re sending up distress flags, I think we’ve moved from waving our arms to sending up a flare or two into the sky just to note that, hey, we need some rain here soon.”

A tractor emerges through the dust in southwestern Manitoba during a dry seeding season. photo: Alexis Stockford

Year-to-date conditions in Manitoba are as dry as they’ve been, “probably since about 1988,” according to Burnett, pointing to subsoil moisture reports out of North Dakota.

“That’s not to say that we’re going to have a repeat of the ’88 growing season, it’s just that’s about how dry we are,” he said.

Almost all of agro-Manitoba is now in a state of “severe drought,” or a drought event expected once every 10 to 20 years, according to the most recent update of the Canadian Drought Monitor. Across the Interlake, southwestern Manitoba and parts of central Manitoba west of Winnipeg, conditions are even drier. The drought monitor considers those regions in a state of “extreme drought,” or an event expected only once in every 20 to 25 years.

The Canadian Drought Monitor, through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, provides a running assessment of drought conditions nationwide based on data like drought models, percentage of normal soil moisture, short- and long-term precipitation and surface moisture as measured by satellite.

“We’re getting most of the cereal crops in the ground, and generally speaking they should probably get enough moisture to get them germinated, except in the sandiest, driest soils, but the need for moisture is almost immediate here,” Burnett said. “And certainly, things like small-seeded crops, things like canola, we do desperately need some rains to wet down the topsoil layers.”

Pastures, likewise, are starting to warm and draw more moisture, and are in a critical window for rain, Burnett added.

According to SMOS satellite data, per cent of saturated soil moisture in most of agro-Manitoba was at least 10 per cent below the norm during April, except for parts of the northwest (which sat anywhere from 7.5 to 10 per cent below normal). Areas dipping below 10 per cent represent the lowest possible classification.

Data produced by Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, however, suggests that there is moisture in the rooting zone. According to a May 9 map, put out by the province, soil moisture in the top 30 centimetres sat anywhere from 40 to 70 per cent in much of the province, or “optimal,” with the exception of some dry patches in the southwest, central Manitoba and the Interlake.

“The surface has been really dry,” provincial agrometeorologist Timi Ojo said. “However, at depth, we still do have quite a bit of moisture.”

At the same time, he noted, producers may easily run into problems even if moisture is available at depth, but the surface is not moist enough to start crops off.

Fall moisture maps from last year were, “not as great as what we’ve had in some years, especially in the Interlake,” he said, although other regions, such as parts of the northwest, started with more promising reserves.

Even those areas, however, show far lower reserves than what a producer would have expected a few years ago. Even more fortunate areas in the northwest ranged around 50 per cent of soil-available moisture, Ojo noted, down from around 80 to 100 per cent in 2016 and 2017 fall moisture maps.

He held back, however, from comparing current conditions to the ’80s. Groundwater in the province has dropped since 2016, Ojo admitted, but still sits higher than it was during the infamously dry years over three decades ago.

This rock, in a pasture that’s not currently in use, shows the falling water level due to arid conditions. photo: Jeannette Greaves

Wait and see

Agronomist Elizabeth Karpinchick of Tone Ag Consulting said there has been little moisture in the 24-inch soil samples her company has gathered this year.

In particular, she noted, her company has urged producers to hold back on seeding their canola, citing previously dry and cold springs where canola was planted early, only to sit ungerminated as the clock ticked down on its seed treatment against flea beetles.

“It seems like we’re not getting that early-May moisture. The canola is not taking off like it should be and it’s just sitting there and waiting to get eaten,” she said.

The yield potential of canola is more forgiving of late seeding dates than many other crops, she also noted.

Potato producers have yet a different challenge, as irrigation reservoirs that normally capture run-off fall far short of normal.

“There just won’t be water available for some of those operations that rely on those spring-filled reservoirs. There’s no water in some of them,” said Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association. “Some of them are planting their fields hoping maybe that there will be a chance to capture water or maybe there’s timely rains throughout the summer that will give them the crop they need.”

Others, who access irrigation out of larger bodies of water, have so far been more lucky, he noted.

Unlike smaller-seeded crops, potato producers were generally able to plant down into moisture, he said, but noted that, like everyone else, their producers are in dire need of future rain.

Livestock hit hard

Concern over the 2021 season is no longer hypothetical for the livestock sector, Fulton said.

Earlier this year, forage experts raised the worrying prospect of another season like 2019. That year, which also kicked off with a dry winter and saw little rain through the growing season, saw swaths of the province in a state of agricultural disaster. Pastures failed; forage yields fell dramatically and hay prices skyrocketed.

“If we’re sending up distress flags, I think we’ve moved from waving our arms to sending up a flare or two into the sky... ” – Bruce Burnett, MarketsFarm. photo: Jeannette Greaves

Added to that, experts warned, perennial forages and pastures have suffered year after year of dry conditions since 2017. Forage specialists have expressed concern over cumulative strain, particularly in pastures that have been repeatedly pushed.

This year may be off to an even worse start than the infamous 2019, Fulton said. Dry conditions this spring are more widespread and more intense than they were in May that year, he noted, pointing to much lower dugout levels than in spring 2019.

“It appears as though kind of the worst-case scenario for spring conditions has developed,” he said. “Now that we’re into the middle of May, we’ve gone the last pretty close to 45 days without any spring moisture to speak of across most of southern Manitoba and so we know we’re already behind the 8-ball.”

Alternative plans are already in motion for the year, he noted.

Some pastures that would typically have surface water are dry and will instead force producers to look at alternate watering. After a string of dry years, high hay costs and a crisis year in 2019 that led many producers to cull their herds, however, Fulton admitted that producer ability to finance watering infrastructure is a “mixed bag.”

Conditions are already forcing difficult marketing decisions, Fulton also noted — a significant concern only two years after herds were also reduced due to lack of feed.

Ongoing issue

Fulton himself has already halved the number of animals to be kept as replacements, and may yet cut back more.

“For livestock operations, it feels like a perfect storm,” he said. “A) We had a dry year last year, so we never really had the hay yields that we had hoped coming out of last year. B) Moisture conditions over the course of the winter were lower than average. C) Commodity prices as far as grain and oilseeds and other commodities out there, those prices are extremely high.

“What makes it a perfect storm is we’re forced to make these tough decisions to sell these animals that would otherwise be our future breeding stock and lower the size of our herds and take animals off of pastures. Well, with those reductions, will we see those numbers come back?”

The strain on the sector, as well as the financial incentive of annual crops, may see more acres converted away from livestock, Fulton suggested.

“It really does create a scenario where we are at risk of losing a ton of grasslands, and it’s concerning,” he said.

Those seeing shadows of 2019 in the conditions this year might not be far off the mark, Ojo also said. In fact, he noted, soil moisture reserves coming into 2019 were actually better.

That year saw some June rains, “just before things got really out of hand,” he said. “The difference though is that in 2019, the fall of 2018 wasn’t as dry as what we had in the fall of 2020.”

The Manitoba Beef Producers has already reached out to the province, hoping to secure similar programming as seen in recent years. Among MBP’s asks, the producer group is hoping to again see extra Crown land and wildlife management areas open for grazing and extra extension on drought planning.

Sourcing water is also on the list. MBP noted that funds offered through Ag Action Manitoba have previously been helpful for producers needing to refurbish their dugouts. At the same time, MBP is pushing for an update on whether interdepartmental talks might open the way to support producers needing to pump or put in water lines this year.

The province has not yet responded to MBP’s letter, Fulton said, “but I do believe the province is fully aware of the conditions.”

Cloud hunting

The province has a few weeks to a month to see some critical rainfall, Burnett said.

While Burnett is dubious of long-term forecasts, he also noted that current models have little in terms of relief on the horizon for the next few weeks.

“As the temperatures warm up here a little bit, that generally does bring chances of moisture a little bit higher as we move the jet stream farther north, but right now it doesn’t really look promising,” he said.

“Essentially what we’re going to get is sort of light, scattered precipitation events rather than a major system,” he added.

Some producers may be lucky enough to hit those storms, he said, although there is little sign of the general soaking rain agricultural lands need.

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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