It’s shaping up to be a season of tough choices for Western Canadian farmers as they watch their crops wilt under the relentless heat.
After entering the growing season with low sub-soil moisture and abnormally cold conditions, farmers knew they would be dependent on timely rains to carry this year’s crop along. The rains we’ve had have been spotty, but would have gone a lot further except for the heat and winds that have prevailed since May.
That’s not to say there aren’t some excellent-looking fields out there, but there are just as many in below-average to poor condition. The situation is unlikely to improve as heat stress takes its toll.
According to the Winnipeg-based Weatherlogics Inc., 14 of the 15 hottest temperatures recorded in Western Canada since 1840 were set between June 27 and 29. Lytton, B.C. set a new all-time high for Canada on three consecutive days leading up to the fire that wiped out the town this week.
Farmers in many areas of the Prairies are watching their cereal crops ripen prematurely, a stress response that causes the plant to choose between yield and producing a smaller volume of high-quality seed that has a better chance of survival. Oilseed and pulse crops suffer similar effects.
It has also been windier than usual this spring, which creates another challenge: to spray or not to spray? Farmers are generally advised to avoid spraying for weeds and pests if wind speeds are above 15 km/h because of the risk of drift into adjoining fields. Wind speeds, especially across southern Manitoba were above that threshold nearly 60 per cent of the time between May 1 and June 15.
As field crops swelter, cattle and dairy producers are trying to find enough pasture to feed their herds through the summer while they round up enough forages to see them through the winter.
Manitoba Agriculture’s latest crop report says pasture conditions throughout the province are poor and the first cut of hay is yielding between 50 and 80 per cent of normal. That implies a scenario in which producers will be forced to start feeding their stock sooner than usual and with less forage available.
Or, they must downsize their herds so there are fewer mouths to feed. That sounds like a question of simple math until you consider how much time and effort goes into building up those herds. Cattle producers tailor their herds to their own environment and management by selecting which heifers to retain for their breeding program and which to market. A female calf born this year won’t be old enough to join the cow herd until she’s two. It can take years to recover from a climate-induced herd reduction.
Between 40 to 50 per cent of grain farmers in this province also have cattle, which opens up a third option: they could pull the plug on their cereal crops and decide to harvest them early as forage.
Again, that’s a tough choice and it’s one that has to be made soon.
"Cereal fields that are or could be negatively impacted by drought and/or heat stress have the potential to be salvaged as forage," said forage specialist John MacGregor in a Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association bulletin this week.
"Although we always hope that a crop will recover if we get moisture, the decision to take as forage earlier can provide a better forage rather than waiting."
That’s the dilemma. If they wait to see whether their crop will produce enough grain to make it worthwhile, they’ll lose out on harvesting for forage. If they jump the gun, they may end up with more forage, but marketing it through their livestock herd takes longer and is riskier.
And if they don’t manage this in concert with their crop insurance coverage, they could face higher premiums and lower coverage in the future.
The growing season is a long way from being over. However, based on the conditions so far, the question on producers’ minds has shifted from how big their harvest could be to how small will it get.
Laura Rance is vice-president of Content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at email@example.com
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.