Les McEwan knows all about headaches caused by frost boils.
He had just turned onto the gravel road after working up one of his fields near Somerset in mid-May. He was going slow, still folding up the wings of his cultivator.
“I felt the tractor hit the soft spot in the road and I’m thinking, ‘Gee, I better be careful with that,’” he recalled. “As I turn around to look over my shoulder, I hear a big thud and that was the one tire exploding as it tried to turn upside down inside the frame of the cultivator.”
The incident tore off the shaft holding the wheels in place and twisted the frame of the cultivator.
Why it matters: Many of the same producers fighting to get onto the field this spring had another enemy to contend with, frost boils.
The soft spot adjacent to McEwan’s field was one of many checkerboarding roads in Manitoba this spring, yet another legacy of the wet fall in 2019.
The RM of Lorne, in which McEwan lives, reported road repairs still ongoing as of the first week of June. Well over 40 sections of municipal road suffered enough damage to warrant patching, officials said.
“I would say (it’s been) somewhat worse,” municipality reeve, Aurel Pantel said. “It wasn’t a complete disaster, but this spring was really bad for the sinkholes.
“For the most part, our roads in (the RM of) Lorne are pretty good,” he added.
Pantel pointed to the wealth of precipitation the area received last fall.
Along with fall rains, the region was among those hard hit by the early-October snowstorm that dropped up to 75 centimetres of snow.
McEwan is far from alone. Farmers in southwestern Manitoba have bemoaned poor road conditions this year, including sections of Highway 23 west of Swan Lake, which was closed to all but local traffic earlier this year.
According to the province’s highway information, that highway is now reopened, although drivers are cautioned about surface breaks “caused by spring breakup.”
Similar cautions have been attached to portions of Highway 22 and Highway 5, both also in southwestern Manitoba, as well as highways north into the Parkland.
Dave Kreklewich, head of council for the Municipality of Oakland-Wawanesa, says repairs have been, “constant,” on the municipality’s gravel roads this spring.
“They’re worse and then, at the same time, farmers were anxious to get out and they couldn’t get out and then all of a sudden all of them were out, so there was a lot of traffic on the roads,” he said.
Kreklewich estimates the municipality won’t be done road repairs for at least a month.
The municipality is creeping up on half of its road repair budget for the year, Kreklewich said, although a relatively dry winter has provided some relief. The municipality has been able to move some money from planned snow removal to road repairs, although the spring is, “stretching,” current financial plans, he said.
The spring damage has created more challenges for producers, many of whom were already fighting a challenging spring. Farmers in the southwest were significantly behind in seeding progress going into June, agronomists and provincial extension staff noted in late May.
On May 26, the province estimated that only 55 per cent of seeding was complete in the southwest, compared to many reports of over 80 per cent seeding completion elsewhere in the province.
Aaron Hargreaves, who farms south of Brandon, noted frost boils as one of his main challenges in a year where his farm was already late to start seeding.
“Equipment is just sinking in the sidehills and hilltops and there’s just no way to see them, no way to avoid them,” he told the Co-operator in late May. “It’s been a really hard year on equipment, for sure.”
Hargreaves was echoed on social media.
Scott Perkin, who farms near Souris, described the state of roads and yards in his area as, “an utter disaster.”
Other producers, noting the same, have added that the local municipalities are doing all they can to keep up to road repairs, while yet others have also noted the poor state of Hwy. 23.
Curtis Borduzak, vice-president of fixed operations with Rocky Mountain Equipment, said the company has noted an uptick in service calls this spring, although he could not tie that to frost boil damage, such as McEwan experienced.
He has not heard specific complaints about damage from moving equipment over poor roads, he noted, adding that producers have also faced challenges trying to complete harvest from last year while also trying to farm in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kreklewich, likewise, said he has not heard of farm equipment damages, although there has been one incident of a resident damaging a passenger vehicle after hitting a section of poor road. Most poor sections are marked, however, he noted.
McEwan, meanwhile, noted that traffic trends in his region have not helped spring road conditions.
“The number of frost boils on this road seems to be increasing with the size of the farms and the size of the equipment we’re running over it,” he said. “There’s a lot more semis running over that gravel road in the spring now than there used to be, and with the high water table, there’s going to be problems.”
The damage to his cultivator did not significantly slow down his spring operations, he noted, although it did take out his high-clearance cultivator of choice, so chosen because he, like many of his neighbours, was unable to complete field work last fall.
“It’s an older machine,” he said. “It’s not worth a lot of money in terms of ag equipment but, you know, it was one I had set up to do the things the way I wanted and I was a little peeved that it got twisted up.”