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Warm, Wet Summer On The Way

Canadian farmers who pulled off some big high-quality crops last year despite volatile weather appear to be in line for a warmer, wetter summer, said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, Jan. 11.

“That’s a pretty good-news situation,” Phillips said in an interview with Reuters. “I think most farmers would go to the bank on that.”

Last year, Western Canada crops overcame a cool, early summer, serious flooding in southern Manitoba and a wet October harvest period, thanks to an unusually warm September and a dry, mild November.

The worst drought in decades in Alberta and west-central Saskatchewan, however, dried up pastures and produced pockets of stunted crops.

Farmers will need favourable summer weather because the winter will likely be dry, Phillips said. The Prairies, where farmers raise most of the country’s crops and cattle, usually see milder, drier winters during years of El Nińo, an abnormal warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean that alters global weather patterns.

Canada is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of spring wheat as well as the top shipper of durum wheat and canola.

Much of the Prairies received less-than-normal precipitation in the final months of 2009, including central Alberta, which just finished its driest decade on record, Phillips said.

“There’s been no recovery (from drought) at all,” he said. “Farmers I’m sure are worrying about the viability of agriculture because they are so much behind the eight ball.”

Restoring soil moisture will take more than a few favourable months, considering how long Alberta has been dry, Phillips said. But the long-range forecast hints summer conditions may be better than they were last year, when slow pasture growth forced ranchers to feed hay to cattle in summer, leaving them short of feed in winter.

For both the spring (March through May) and summer periods (June through August), Environment Canada predicts warmer and wetter-than-usual weather, although Phillips cautions that the forecast can’t say whether the increases will be slight or extreme. Much also depends on favourable timing of rains.

Alberta’s precipitation this spring looks to be near normal, while most of Saskatchewan, parts of which also suffered drought last year, should get wetter-than-normal weather.

Manitoba should also see more rain this summer, Phillips said.

Manitoba’s biggest worry last year was flooding of the flat, fertile Red River Valley. It happened early enough, however, for the valley to drain and allow farmers to sow most land.

There’s no guarantee the valley will escape flooding this year, but the outlook is more promising. Fall precipitation was less in southern Manitoba than a year earlier and prospects of a drier winter and earlier spring thaw limit flood potential, Phillips said.

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