The Worst Drought in Decades

It has been two months since I posted “One Storm Can Change Everything“. That was the last – and only – significant rain event we have seen this year.

Making things worse was the incessant, unrelenting heat, burning up what little water we had. Want to know the best way to tell that farmers have a tough crop this year? Great beach weather! All those hot, dry days in July and August, while great for going to the lake, make for terrible growing conditions.

Make no mistake: I’m in an area that has at least received at least some moisture this year. We have gotten 88 mm (3.5 inches) of rain so far this year. While this is extremely low – less that 40% of our average rainfall to date – many farms further south and west of ours have seen even less (some have seen much less). So I’m not going to complain and say we are worse off than anybody else, as that is simply not the case. We are fortunate to have the crop that we do.

I think it’s important to understand the situation for farmers out there this year. Nothing anybody did caused this drought to happen, and we farmers do the best we can to utilize every drop of rain we can get in years like this. There’s just very little you can do if it doesn’t rain.

We can give our crops the best chance, with the best genetics, the best crop protection products, and get every job done right and on time. But if the rains don’t come; if the weeks slip by without a drop of moisture, with unceasing heat sucking water out of the crop like a sponge; the crop will fail. Sometimes the weather outweighs everything else.

Adding insult to injury is that sometimes droughts aren’t recognized as a problem by the markets. A world awash in wheat and soybeans doesn’t care about some poor crops in Western Canada. Grain buyers don’t care that we need $13 per bushel canola prices to break even. If the market determines the price should be $10.50 per bushel, that’s just the way it is.

A drought like this one hasn’t been seen on the Prairies in quite a long time. Comparisons are being made to 1988 in many areas, one of the worst droughts in recorded history in the Prairies. It is because of the changes in production techniques that we even have a crop at all. No-till (means the ground is rarely, if ever, worked) is a big part of the reason we have the crop that we do, and no-till only works if we have access to the best crop protection products. Genetically modified crops like canola allow for the minimization of tillage by allowing the use of broad-spectrum herbicides like glyphosate or others. We need every tool in the toolkit when conditions become challenging.

In times like this, we don’t ask for your sympathy, nor do we ask for hand-outs. We ask only for your understanding; that maybe it’s okay it rained on the weekend, possibly derailing lake plans. We ask that maybe you give us a little more room to complain about the weather. We ask for a bit of extra patience in dealing with us, with the extra stress that so many farmers are struggling with right now. The Farm Stress Line is very busy right now. Stress is very real in times like this, and don’t be afraid to ask how your farm friends are doing.

Farming is a complicated and stressful business, and droughts like this one certainly add to the burden. Farming is a long-term, generational business, with next year always at the forefront of our minds. I already worry for 2018; with severely depleted soil moisture, we will desperately need a recharge for the next crop year. If we don’t get it, we may remember 2017 as the deep breath before the plunge.

For now though, my main focus is on harvest. As the combines roll along, we are seeing decent yields coming off the fields. The winter wheat and peas are in the bin, and we should be back at harvest in a couple of days. Lentils are next, and canola and durum will soon follow. Given the limited moisture, I am satisfied with the yields we’re seeing.

There is a lot to be positive about. Just because soil moisture is low now doesn’t mean next year will be a drought too. There have been many flash-in-the-pan droughts (see Midwest USA drought in 2012), and there will be many more. Agriculture is an amazing way of life, and the silver lining of a slower year like this one is more time to spend with my wife and son – and the new little one joining our family in January.

 

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One Storm Can Change Everything

One of the driest springs in decades finally ended two nights ago, with a rain we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity. Seven weeks passed with virtually no rain, and an unceasing wind drove what moisture we had into the air. It was beginning to look like we were entering what may have been a devastating drought. All that changed on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday night, anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell across our farm. Only 20170615_075256 a few years ago this kind of rain would have been a serious problem, with saturated soils unable to absorb it; this time, our parched ground soaked up almost all of it, with only a small amount pooling in low-land.

This post is a recurring one on my blog, but this may be the first time I have written it in a positive sense. Usually the “one storm that changes everything” is a torrential rain that causes all sorts of problems. This time, this one rainfall event saved our crops from certain failure.

When you talk to farmers like my dad, who started farming in the late 70’s, it seems they are always afraid of the next drought. I started farming in 2009, in one of the wettest cycles this area of the Prairies has seen in centuries, so my first concern is always too much rain. This is the first time I have seen what the beginning of a real drought looks like, and we had the benefit of high subsoil moisture to carry us through to the rain. Farmers that farmed in the 1980’s know very well what a drought looks like.

Dad often talks about the 80’s, about the summers hauling water for the cattle from any source he could find. They would run pipe for miles from a random deep slough that just happened to have water, just to get enough to keep the cattle going. The crops, in several years, were near write-offs, wilting and dying before they could even produce a single seed.

The worst of them all was 1988. Scorching heat and wind in early June, with temperatures regularly in the mid-30’s, obliterated a crop that was already struggling to get out of the ground. That is a year many farmers will remember for the rest of their lives. It didn’t help that grain prices were poor and interest rates were ridiculously high. Many farms didn’t survive this terrible time, and I am glad I have no memories of those days (I was born in 1988).

So, when we get a dry period like we had, that is the mindset farmers of that generation go to. There are few things in farming more terrifying than a drought. It is a dark reminder of the exposure we all have to the whims of Mother Nature.

This rain was a tremendous blessing, and saved the year for this farm. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky, and many areas are still in desperate need of rain. Maybe this storm will move us into a wetter cycle. For now though (as soon as it dries up), we will be very busy out in the fields, applying fertilizer, killing weeds, and protecting what is now a crop with real promise. This is what farmers like me live for – raising crops to their full potential.

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It Hasn’t Rained In 42 Days

6 weeks. That’s how much time has passed since the last significant rainfall came to us. That is the longest stretch without rain (at this time of the year) I have seen in my time on the farm. In fact, according to historical data (click here), this has been the driest May in the Weyburn area in nearly two decades – and a whopping 46 years for the Regina area.

It’s dry. No question about it. The wind certainly hasn’t been helping matters either; yesterday, it was gusting up to 60 km/hr, just like it has so many other days this spring. I honestly don’t remember a spring this incessantly windy. It is actually extremely aggravating doing anything outside in wind like we’ve had. Just look at the graph below – it’s from one of our weather stations. That is a lot of windy days! And, that is only from the last month – April was very windy as well.

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The wind has been stripping what little moisture we had in our topsoil out, contributing to what amounts to a rather patchy crop. The good news is that we got a nice rain right at the start of seeding, and our soil was right full of water going coming out of winter. That left us with a nice buffer, and there is still a lot of moisture in our soil profile. Things aren’t desperate, not yet.

For the most part this spring, we actually had very nice seeding conditions. The soil was moist, planting conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t too hot. We really couldn’t have asked for better seeding conditions, and the majority of our crop shows it – our earlier seeded crop looks fantastic.

The last third of the crop we planted really needs a rain. Only about half to three-quarters of that later seeded crop has emerged so far, with the rest of it still sitting in the ground, waiting for moisture. The result is a patchy crop that is going to be all over the place for maturity.

The one crop suffering more than anything else is our winter wheat. The extensive soil 20170605_123530moisture reserves the other crops are enjoying are long gone for this fall-seeded crop, and it is hurting. We probably have a week to get a rain on this crop before it truly begins to fail. Crops just can’t survive that long without water. Six weeks of dry, windy weather is a lot to ask of any plant.

It has been a long time since our farm experienced a drought. In the last 10 years, we have been far more worried about excess moisture than being short of it. in 2011, we had 17 inches of rain between April and August; and we were saturated to begin with. This year, we have had a half inch of rain since March. Undoubtedly, that is a better situation to be in; there are a lot of farmers up north that are desperate for the dry weather we have been having. Being too wet brings all sorts of problems that we are all too familiar with.

It is too early to give up on this crop. It has a lot of things going for it, especially the early seeded acres. But we are running out of time for the rain to start. If we haven’t seen significant rainfall by the end of the next two weeks, we will be in trouble. Simply put, we need rain and we need it now. If only Mother Nature cared!

 

Going From One Extreme To Another

Every year is different. Generally, you can classify years by how their weather patterns. Last year was dry, 2014 was wet, 2013 was cool and wet, 2012 was hot and wet, and so on. This year… this year doesn’t seem to fit any sort of normal pattern. We had one of the driest, warmest winters of the past couple decades, followed by an abnormally warm and dry spring. Seeding started in mid-April, earlier than ever, and we were seeding into progressively drier soil.

Day after day the wind blew dust in our faces and whipped around any unprotected soil. Vehicles and equipment were layered with a dust so fine and so thick you could hardly stand it. Forecasts were calling for a hot and dry summer, and the unceasing wind drove what moisture we had out of the ground. We were on the brink of a drought unlike anything we (in this area, that is) had seen in many, many years.

Six weeks later, I spend each day looking at the sky, hoping for just one more day without rain! What the hell happened?

Somewhere around the middle of May, something changed. A freak rainfall event, one that should never have occurred in our persistent dry pattern, gave us a much needed rainfall, one that got our crop out of the ground. Ever since then, we just keep getting more and more and more rain. Over the last month, we have gotten more rainfall than we got in the entire 2015 growing season.

Is this an improvement? Unquestionably, yes. We were getting close to a pretty dire situation. If the crop didn’t get rain soon, it was going to be in real trouble. Our canola desperately needed moisture to get out of the ground. The crop emerged, the dust settled, and we have the makings of a large crop; unlike anything we’ve seen since 2013, a record year.

So what exactly am I complaining about then? Well, sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. One of the problems with such a dry winter and spring, combined with a forecast for a hot and dry summer, is that you tend to strategize for that type of weather. It’s hard to change gears once the year has already started, and pretty much impossible to change your cropping mix once it is already planted.

Wet weather like this is rough on dry-season crops like lentils and peas. While peas are fairly resilient and will likely bounce back from some early-season excess moisture stress, lentils simply cannot. Once they start to become water-logged, they really don’t recover well, even if the weather turns around. And, once they reach what is now a very fragile state, all it takes is a little push to sent them over the brink.

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Although it might be hard to see in the photo, that yellow spot up ahead is in very bad shape. As the roots become infected with pathogens, they quickly begin to fail and will not recover. A substantial number of our lentil acres look like this.

One more big rain. That’s all it will take to destroy an enormous amount of our lentils. They are already under tremendous stress, with pathogens attacking their roots and their leaves, and they just can’t take much more. One storm can change everything.

For the past week we have been anxiously watching the skies and the forecasts, awaiting the near-certainty of heavy rains. Forecast maps published by numerous meteorologists painted a grim picture of the weather ahead.

But, despite all the forecasts and all the doom and gloom, the rains didn’t come. Each storm system that was supposed to hammer us with inches of rain didn’t materialize. They moved south, they moved east, and they just kept missing us (on that note, some areas did see that forecast verified – and it is not a good situation for them).

We just might have made it. The 7-day forecast is for nothing but sun and heat, perfect weather to set up a recovery. Don’t get me wrong; the lentils still stand upon the edge of a knife, but if the forecast verifies, they might still turn out alright.

And, in all honesty, these are a lot better problems to have than if the rains never did come. By now, the crop may well have been written off, dried up to nothing and wilting in the fields. Instead, we have a crop of wheat and canola unlike anything we’ve seen in years, one that looks absolutely remarkable. Bad weather for lentils is perfect weather for wheat and canola; and that is why you always keep different crops in the rotation around here. You just never know what kind of weather you’re going to get.

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It is rare for canola to be flowering like this in June, but with such an early start, it is well advanced and enjoying all the moisture.

The fact is that extreme weather is what we tend to get. Dad has been farming for the better part of forty years and he has yet to see a year where the perfect amount of rain and sunshine grew a crop limited only by its own genetics. And besides, how boring would that be anyway? It’s the stresses and challenges that make farming truly exhilarating.

 

 

Hoping For Rain

We have never had this much seed in the ground this early. As of today, we are down to our last two fields – which we could actually finish by Wednesday, May 11. That would be the FB_IMG_1462723488664earliest finish to seeding our farm has ever seen. For perspective, we could actually finish seeding before it even started in 2013.  At the same time, we have seeded more acres than ever; low spots that have been full of water for eight years are finally dried up. Our fields look better than they have for a very long time.

So what are we worried about? Well, the downside to such an efficient and early seeding season is that you need dry conditions for that to occur – and that is what we are experiencing.

And it is dry. We haven’t seen a rain since the 15th of April, close to a month behind us. At the same time, we have had very warm weather for late April/early May. We had quite a few days over 30 degrees Celsius; some of those with a gusty wind too. A lack of precipitation coupled with warm and windy conditions has caused a great deal of drying on our soils. What started out as near-perfect conditions for planting has since become concerning. Every day gets dustier and dustier. It becomes a little wearying when all day every day you are layered in dust from an unceasing wind, your eyes full of dirt and your clothes constantly dusty.

On the other hand, if there is a time of the year to be dry, it’s seeding. It is a big, complicated operation that takes all the manpower, will and determination we have to complete. It’s not just about getting it done; it’s about getting it done right. As we have seen over the past several years, frequent rains can cause serious problems for the planting season.

Nevertheless, crops need moisture to germinate and get out of the ground. If it’s not there, they will simply sit in the ground and wait for it. So, what you end up with in a spring like this is some parts of the field end up wetter than others (different soil types, elevation, etc), and consequently you get patchy emergence. A crop that comes up patchy will be a myriad of staging come harvest, which makes life difficult for the combines.

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Some of these have germinated, but some have not. Parts of the field are too dry to support germination.

The thing is, a patchy crop could be the least of our problems. In the 1980’s, particularly in 1988, the weather got so dry and so hot that crops simply couldn’t cope. Many fields had no crop at all. While I don’t believe we are headed for that scenario this year, it is always in the back of my mind – because it is possible. Long-range forecasts are calling for a near to above average temperature bias and below average precipitation. Add that to an already dry start to the growing season, and you have yourself a drought.

The good news is there is rain in the forecast. A major system is expected to move through here starting tomorrow. As usual when a system like this is forecast, the rain totals change drastically before we actually see the storm hit us. Last week, there were forecasters saying we could get 2-3 inches of rain. Today, it sounds like a half inch is what we will get. It’s always worrying to see rain estimates decrease when the storm is still more than a day away. You have no idea how frustrating it is when weather forecasters estimate a near certainty of rain – and then it doesn’t happen.

Although we all know the weak track record of weather forecasters, we have no choice but to DSC_0671manage our seeding decisions accordingly. With a major storm system forecast, we decreased the depth of our canola seeding outfit to ensure the fragile little canola seeds don’t get buried too deep. If it doesn’t rain, our canola seeded now will not come up. It will not be in contact with moisture. We have to make our best judgment call on decisions like this, even when we know the inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts.

One of the most annoying things at this time of the year is the way most weather people on TV and radio talk about the forecast. “Look at the week ahead! Nothing but 30 degrees plus! Fantastic!” Weather like that is not what we need in an already dry spring. We need rain and moderate temperatures. Weeks and weeks of hot weather is not good for freshly seeded crops. It would be nice to see a little more enthusiasm for rainy weather. Sorry about the tangent.

This is the most expensive time of the year for farmers. We are spending upwards of $100K a day between fertilizer, seed, chemical, fuel, repairs, depreciation and so on. With all of that depending on just a few well-timed rains, you can understand why farmers can be a little stressed out at this time of the year. A rain can truly make or break a farm. One storm can change everything. All we can do is seed our crops and hope for the best.

Our Earliest Seeding Ever

My very first blog post was April 18, 2013, titled Spring – Where Are You? We were in the midst of a never-ending winter, so cold and so snowy it seemed spring would fail to come at all. To add insult to injury, 11 days after that frustrating post, it snowed again. I was genuinely concerned that the crop would not go in the ground. Despite my apprehension, we actually did get the crop in; we simply started three weeks later than normal, on the 11th of May.

This year, you couldn’t imagine a scenario more different. Winter didn’t just end early – it hardly came at all! We haven’t had snow since February, our winter wheat started growing in March, and we actually did some seeding on the 13th of April. How do you predict changes like that?

Of course, this is hardly the first time weather like this has occurred. The winter of 2011-2012 was actually warmer than this past one, and there have been numerous drier ones too. It is undeniable, though, that it is dry. We haven’t seen conditions like this in many years. It’s dry enough to be concerning; even after all the wet years we’ve experienced, drought is still a frightening word.

The reality is that we have received very little precipitation since November. We got a nice rain a little over a week ago that helped recharge us a bit, but with every windy, warm day that goes by, we lose more and more precious moisture. The thing is, despite all our advances in seeding technology, despite no-till farming and water-efficient crops, we still need spring rains to get our crop out of the ground. Once it’s established, it can tap into the stored soil water and go from there. But it has to have a chance to get there.

So, if moisture is a concern, and we have moisture now, why not get the crop in the ground as quickly as possible? Well, we live in the Canadian Prairies, where we experience the worst of every weather extreme (well, most of them anyway). If our crop gets out of the ground too quick in the spring, a mid-May frost (which is very possible) can cause a lot of damage; just ask the farmers that had to reseed over a million acres of canola last year after a May 30 frost. While that may be a rare scenario, it is one you have to consider when deciding how early is too early.

On the other hand, if it is going to be a dry year, getting the crop in as early as possible may be a game-changer for yield. Giving the crop its best chance to use that early moisture and cooler days could be critical for its development.

On the other other hand, if it starts dry but gets wetter later, the later-seeded crops could outperform because the rain happens to arrive at a more optimum stage for development; such as in 2015, when all that reseeded, very late canola yielded very well.

Here’s the reality: we simply don’t know what the year will bring. Everything we do now is based on our best guesses of how the year may pan out. Today, there is moisture in the ground, the soil temperature is over 5 degrees, and the fields are plenty dry enough to run equipment over them. That’s why our farm is seeding, and has been for the past 5 days. Other farms are waiting until we’re closer to May. Which one of us is right? Who knows.

This is why agriculture is such a challenging career. Our farm lives and dies based on the weather. We can’t predict it, so we just try to think critically about every decision we make and act on it. Then we hope for rain and sun – but not too much of each.

Seeding is an incredibly stressful but also exhilarating time of the year, when we lay all of our best plans and strategies in the ground and hope for the best. It may be a sprint to the finish, but it is awfully easy to trip on a crack on the way to the finish line. Details are everything. Tomorrow, we go back at it again, and I’m excited to see what it will bring.

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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.