What Does Such A Warm Winter Mean For Farmers?

Everybody knows that agriculture heavily relies on the weather. A single storm can change an entire growing season. A drought can be devastating. But we rarely see such extremes. While much of the weather we get can be challenging and surprising, it typically averages out over time. This winter, though, has been a particularly weird one- right?

I’m not going to go into the details of the weather of this winter. Suffice to say, we moved snow once this winter, and you could probably make the case that we just really wanted to run the dozer tractor. This has been a winter with very limited snow and very mild temperatures. We had a couple weeks of extreme cold in January, but realistically this has been one easy winter. February was so warm that we lost what little snow we had before March even started. That is a rare situation.

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Seriously, it’s hard not to have fun moving snow with this thing.

So what are the implications of this? Are we headed for a drought? Is it climate change? Has this ever happened before?

To point out how short our own memories often are, take a look at this picture from 2012. This is February 22nd (photo credit- Sarah Leguee). No snow! That was also an incredibly mild winter. In fact, some2012 winter farmers in Southeast Saskatchewan started seeding at the beginning of April (spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out very well). My point is that winters like this are certainly rare, but not unheard of.

To figure out what a winter like this could mean for us, the best year to look at then is 2012. In this area, crops were good, and it was a pretty successful year. We saw excessive moisture in late May and June, followed by a lack of moisture into the end of July and August. The excess moisture in the spring caused some damage, but it probably saved us from getting burned up in late summer.

On the other hand, we had substantial disease and insect pressure. Was it because of the warm winter? I think it’s fair to say that it had an influence, possibly a major one. One thing our extreme winters give us is an inability for insects and diseases to overwinter here. Most of them must migrate up from the south. If they can survive the winter, it gives them a head start. We saw severe damage from Aster Yellows, we had trouble with Fusarium, and we had problems with a variety of insects. Separating what was caused by the warm winter and what was part of a normal cycle is difficult, but it is fair to say that we could face similar issues in 2016.

The challenge with farming is that every year is different. Parallels between seasons are very challenging to draw out, and due to the climate’s chaotic nature, forecasters have a very hard time forecasting what is to come. So what can we expect in 2016?

One thing we do know right now is that it is dry. Soil moisture is lower now than it was at this time last year, so we have less of a buffer to withstand periods of low moisture. This warm, dry winter has not helped our soils and water bodies recharge like they normally do. I have never scouted crops in the middle of March before, but I did just that the other day in our winter wheat. The soil is thawed, the crop may be breaking its winter dormancy, and it just pretty much felt like spring out there. It is concerningly early for the wheat to be greening up, and a stretch of more normal cold weather could wreak havoc on it.

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This picture could very easily be from the end of May, but it is actually from March 14th.

As the weeks go by and it stays warm, sunny and frequently windy, the soil will continue to dry. We could theoretically start seeding in a couple of weeks (we won’t) with how quickly the soil is drying up. So, yes, drought is a concern, and the longer the weather stays like this, the greater the worry will become.

On the flip side, when the weather does change, it could do so with a vengeance. We have seen time and again over the past several years that when we change weather patterns, the conversion is often harsh. In the spring of 2011, we were considering seeding in mid to late April, until a bunch of snow dropped on our doorstep, followed by cold temperatures and over a foot of rain over the next two months. The weather changed dramatically and pretty much prevented seeding altogether. However, our fields were already full to capacity when that moisture came, so it was a completely different situation.

I guess the point of what I’m trying to say here is that we honestly really don’t know what the growing season will provide. Right now, I’d place my bets on being dry, and that we will be wanting for rain most of the year. But “dry” doesn’t equal “drought”, and I’m far from ready to hit the panic button yet. While this weather may be unusual, we have seen winters like this before, and we will again.

As farmers, we have to take whatever nature throws at us and make the best of it. We never know what weather we have in front of us, and accordingly we have a hard time determining how much to invest in our crops. We can throw all the money in the world at our crops, but if it doesn’t rain, we simply can’t make use of it. However, it is far too early to start worrying about the year ahead. We will not go out and go seeding on the 10th of April, but we might be a few days earlier than normal. Anything can happen over the next 6 months, and that is what makes agriculture so exciting. I can’t wait to see what Mother Nature has in store for us in 2016.

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Excitement or Fear?

There is an interesting and frightening juxtaposition when you look at crop conditions today. Crops look good. No, scratch that; crops look fantastic. We haven’t seen a crop like this since 2009, which was a record-breaking year for our farm. But, incredibly, this year could actually be better than 2009.

The other side of this coin is that the reason crops look so good is because summer has been so cool. We have not seen a high breach 25 degrees Celsius since mid-July. We have had many days of cloudy, cool weather with some disturbingly cold nights. In fact, some areas of northern Saskatchewan actually had patchy, soft frost last night. While we have escaped any of this so far (as have most) and forecasts look for an improvement in temperatures, tensions are building for everyone here. Will the crop mature in time?

In the Northern Prairies, we grow mostly cool-season crops, like wheat, peas and canola. These crops do not like temperatures above 30 degrees, especially when they are flowering. These hot temperatures can cause seed and pod abortion, which reduces yield. This was what we experienced last year, although the crop was still a good one, for the most part. Canola especially loves flowering in cool weather, which is why it looks so phenomenal. 

Due to warm weather the past couple of years, we have been experimenting with long-season crops like soybeans and corn. These crops, and especially corn, require hot weather to mature in time before our usual frost of September 10th.

As we near the middle of August, it almost doesn`t matter whether your crop is warm or cool season. All crops are at risk. A frost in the next 3 weeks would be devastating. Our farm is simply not prepared to deal with that kind of financial hardship, especially not after the difficult years we have experienced in 2010-2011. We have invested a lot of money in this year`s crop, totalling over 1 million in direct inputs alone, not to mention the new machinery we have purchased to upgrade ageing equipment. We cannot withstand a significant frost event until at least September 15. Beyond the 20th or even the 25th would be wonderful. The risk has become very real.

It is odd to talk about such a wonderful crop in the field and then complain about the weather. But there is no event, not hail, wind, drought or excess rainfall, that causes the financial and emotional hardship that an early frost creates. You can quite literally lose the entire crop if it freezes too early, as many experienced in 2004 (read more about that year and its devastation here), which was one year all farmers in the Prairies will remember. 

Harvest is coming, and the crop of a lifetime is out there.

The calendar is ticking ever closer to September, with fields still green and flowering.

Will we make it? Only time will tell.

I’m becoming very nervous.

Harvest Still Feels Very Far Away

Fungicide season is over (mostly), insect populations seem to be on the decline, and our seeding equipment is cleaned up and put away. Our harvesting equipment is mostly ready to go to the field, and there aren’t too many summer projects to work on. Crops look nothing short of excellent, as stated in the last post, and our farm and many others have a great opportunity for profit this year. Finally, after a long, hard run this spring and summer, we can sit back and relax a bit. 

Or can we? 

Last night was a dark reminder of the climate we live in. Temperatures dropped dangerously close to the freezing mark, with some lows dipping down to between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius. We have been in a cool weather pattern for the past few days, and yesterday was the coldest, with temperatures improving going forward. Nonetheless, a night like that sends a chill down a farmer’s spine, with reminders of the year 2004 still fresh in everybody’s minds.

The growing season of 2004 was, by all accounts, a great one. Crops were fantastic across the prairies, with huge potential. I remember my dad, I think it was in June, saying “We are set up to have our biggest crop ever.” Summer, however, was quite cool, with many nights dipping into the low single digits and daily highs only in the low twenties. This is great weather for growing canola; the flowering plants hate weather warmer than 28 degrees Celsius, and do very well in low twenties. Wheat and peas enjoy similar weather.

Things were looking phenomenal- until the night of August 19th. Temperatures dropped below zero, and did again only a couple of days later. Frost that early causes some serious issues for immature crops. Temperatures below zero are alright if only for a limited time; but that year it was about -2 to -4 for 2-3 hours. This kind of cold essentially kills a plant as it stands. Immature seeds contained in pods and in heads lose ability to mature, and end up staying green. Some seeds may finish their filling, but will be shrunken and light. These characteristics are worse in some crops than others. In wheat, the flour made from these seeds will not rise properly to form bread, and must therefore be sold as animal feed. Canola will not develop its oil content required for crushing to produce cooking oil and biofuel. Malt barley will not germinate properly in the process to create beer. In other crops like lentils, where appearance is everything, grading can be harsh.

Crops are graded in Canada as a #1 on down to feed. Major price discounts are common for a grade reduction from a #1, particularly in wheat, durum and malt barley. A drop from a #1 to a #2 or even a #3 may not be too bad, especially if there is a lot of #1 wheat around. A drop to feed could cost $2-4 per bushel, depending on the year. In 2004, since most of the Prairies was hit by this frost, most wheat was feed, so the price was pitifully low. Even back then, selling wheat for $2/bushel does not pencil out well.

Many farmers that year nearly went bankrupt, with the only saving grace being a good crop the following year. Even though that was only nine years ago, the numbers have grown larger, and I know our farm would be devastated by a frost that early this year. We are still a month away from harvest, and we must avoid a frost until at least the middle of September. Because of the late seeding this year, our crops are behind normal, and we need a later frost and a nice fall.

Farming is a difficult business, mostly because of the catastrophic effects Mother Nature can have on our crops. Drought, excess moisture, hail, wind, insects, disease, weeds and frost are all things that a crop must overcome, sometimes all in the same year. We have reached the end of hail season, but now we must worry about heavy rainfall and frost. Harvest looms in front of us, but the fact is that it is still a long way away- too far away. Just as my stress level started to decrease from severe weather, it rises again now from the possibility of an early frost.

Time will tell. All we can do is wait- and pray.