Good Beach Weather Does Not Grow Good Crops

Summer. Time to spend at the lake, your cabin, a campground; pretty much anywhere that involves enjoying the outdoors. What’s the best weather for that? Well, 30 degree days are wonderful out on the lake, and for some people, the hotter the better. All you have to do is turn on your favorite weather station and hear the weatherperson acclaim yet another glorious 33 degree summer day, with more wonderful heat on the way…

As a farmer, that is about as agonizing to listen to as nails on a chalkboard. There are countless ways for us to lose yield every year, whether it’s frost, hail, excess moisture, insects, diseases, or countless other threats. Each one of those events is devastating in its own way; but at least you have some control over the living threats, like diseases and insects. The ones that fall from the sky are by far the worst. The last few years, as you will find on previous posts, have hit us hard with excess moisture and even some frost events. Cool and wet has been the name of the game. The advantage of that type of weather is that if you can avoid the extremes, you can grow some incredible crops.

This year, weather has taken a 180 degree turn. Our crops are suffering under an oppressive, stifling summer sun, with daytime temperatures easily reaching over 30 degrees day after day. Rainfall has been limited, to say the least. This year, we are facing an event we haven’t seen in many, many years; a drought.

My father started farming back in the late 70’s, a time not unlike this one. Farms were doing very well, with fantastic grain prices for quite a few years previous. Land prices were skyrocketing, and much of the Prairies had grown at least a few good crops to cash in on the good times. Then came the 80’s.

The 1980’s was one of the driest decades ever recorded in Western Canada, perhaps even worse than the infamous Dirty 30’s. Of all those years of dry weather, 1988 is the one that stands out as the worst. Dad talks about that year a lot. Crops barely even germinated, and most died soon after emergence. Weeks of extreme heat and wind sucked the life out of the entire crop. Keeping enough feed around for the cattle was terribly difficult, and water had to be pumped and hauled from just about every slough they could find.

While this year is not at all on that level for our area, for some areas west of here those comparisons are starting to be made. That is a disturbing thing to hear. Serious feed shortages are going to arise, and there are some truly sick looking crops out there that are past the point of no return.

Ironically, despite all my frustrations about the past couple of years, it is because of all that excess moisture last year and the years before that we have the crop that we do. Despite only Red Lentilsreceiving three inches, or 75 millimeters, of rain since the beginning of the crop year, we have a crop stand we haven’t had in many, many years. Everything was pointing to an above average crop… but we haven’t had a significant rain now for nearly three weeks. Our subsoil moisture is slowly running out, and as temperatures climb into the low 30’s, our crops are beginning to feel the pinch. Any day above 25 degrees starts removing yield potential from wheat and canola, and as the days turn into weeks, that potential will really start to collapse.

Picture yourself as a wheat plant standing out in the middle of a field. As the sun’s heat bears down on you, what can you do to keep cool? You can’t walk over to a tree to find shade. You can’t jump in a pool of water to cool off. All you can do is stand there and drink as much water as you can to stay hydrated and cool. So, naturally, you drink a lot of water. Right now, with the heat these crops are experiencing, they are using 10 mm of water per day. Even with the substantial soil reserves we have, heat like that will burn it up very quickly.

This data from our John Deere Field Connect Weather Station. you can see each of the different soil depths, and the water level in each down to one meter. It is fascinating to watch throughout the season - but you can see a marked reduction in soil moisture that is simply not being replenished.
This is data from our John Deere Field Connect Weather Station. You can see each of the different soil depths, and the water level in each down to one meter. It is fascinating to watch throughout the season – but you can see a marked reduction in soil moisture that is simply not being replenished.

The situation in our area, despite the recent heat wave, is still pretty good. We have an excellent stand of deeply rooted crops that are adapting to drier, hotter weather. We also tried more drier-season crops this year, due to the forecast for a summer like we’re currently seeing, such as lentils, peas and winter wheat. I really need to point out that we have been very fortunate so far this year. But that won’t last forever. We need a rain, and we need it soon.

While some thunderstorms have popped up here and there and provided relief to a couple of DSC_0083fields, it has been far from good enough. And, the danger of these summer storms is that they rarely only bring rain. We had substantial damage to a canola field last week from a hail storm. With the right weather, it can probably recover fairly well, but the next couple of weeks will be critical for it.

Don’t get me wrong; I love going to the lake, and it is nice to have some hot weather to go along with it. But day after day of 30+ degree temperatures are critically damaging to crops. Not to mention that trying to work outside in weather like that is anything but enjoyable.

For a long time, my parents farmed in some pretty dry weather. It has only been the past 7 years that we have wished against rain. Maybe this is just a return to normal. One thing there is little doubt about though is this: if this heat continues, and rain fails to materialize, a large part of the Canadian Prairies will be in rough shape. There are few threats farmers fear more than drought, and for the first time in 13 years, that may just be what we’re in.

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Could’ve Been Worse

The rain event we needed came on Monday. The rain event we needed to avoid came on Thursday.

Yes, the rain that was forecast reared its ugly head early Thursday afternoon. Accumulation expectations varied, but most seemed to be in that 2-3 inch range, with more expected for Monday. Indeed, the outlook was nothing short of grim, with soil that was already saturated incapable of supporting another deluge of rain, thoughts quickly turned to the horrible poundings of rain that slammed us in 2011. Rains that washed out roads, flooded basements, and all but wiped out whatever crops that were in the fields.

The reality was surprisingly positive. Before the rain occurred yesterday, the rains forecast for Monday/Tuesday were backed off to just a chance of showers, which was a big relief. And, now that all is said and done and the rain is finished today, we ended up with a grand total of “only” 1.2 inches of rain. Hardly the amount feared, but still not an insignificant number. Certainly, it was enough to flood out some crops, make the roads wet and sloppy, and will generally make future seeding difficult, but it was not the downpour that was feared. Furthermore, after the rain ended this morning, the sun came out and the wind picked up (a lot), quickly moving water off of many spots in the fields. Things are not as bad as was feared, and it appears that, with the present forecast, we may be back in the fields early in the week. With the calendar flipping to June tomorrow, this is an excellent development, as we may yet be able to finish seeding before the tenth of June.

In a side note, the psychological aspect of farming in this area of the world has been fundamentally altered. For decades, the greatest fear was not getting the rains when they are most needed. Memories of the 1980’s are still fresh in many farmers’ minds, including my father’s. However, we have been in a wet cycle for many years now, in which rain falls in inches rather than tenths of an inch, and farmers now worry about excess moisture rather than missing it. At least, we younger ones do, the ones that didn’t farm in the 80’s. For those that did, drought is an ever-present fear, one that I believe haunts them to their very core. They say that the 80’s were likely worse than the Dirty 30’s; the dust bowl that decimated the prairie landscape, that still leaves scars today in the topsoil piled up in old fencelines. Better farming practices, including conservation tillage made possible by pesticides, were all that held off the horrid dust storms that plagued my grandparents’ homes. My father’s father experienced this firsthand, including the hunger that went with it; they spent many days waiting for the trains to bring food relief. In fact, as my father tells me, my grandfather never even owned shoes, instead saving all the money they could to purchase winter boots. I cannot imagine a time like this; nor do I believe can anyone else in this part of the world.

In reflection of such a terrible time in this province’s history, perhaps our wet cycle isn’t so bad. Cattle aren’t starving to death, we are still getting by, and our homes aren’t caked with dirt. Excess rainfall is frustrating, expensive and difficult, but at least we aren’t choking on dust.

One positive development out of this rain was that I was able to take my wife out to the city for dinner and a movie for her 25th birthday. Since her birthday is in May, it often gets missed out on, which is unfortunate and unfair. She keeps me sane, protecting me from the stress and frustration farming often brings, even if she doesn’t realize it. I am so lucky to have her as my wife.

Being stopped for a couple of days has given us time to evaluate our marketing position as well, which caused us to make new-crop sales of canola and durum to ensure we can make our cash-flow commitments in the fall. Growing the crop is only part of running a business like this. Marketing and finance are vital aspects of the operation that too often get overlooked. This is something I am working on improving, which has led to a massive set of Excel spreadsheets to track every cost and income on this farm. Knowing our cost of production down to the penny has been a huge benefit to us, and we can still do better.

Now that the feared weather event has passed by, we can focus on getting back in the field and finishing seeding. It is time for it to be wrapping up, and I look forward to getting back out there. Maybe Monday will be a go. We will see.

The Swinging of the Pendulum

The rain I have been waiting for has arrived. Yesterday morning I awoke at my usual time, 5:15 am, to get ready to go spraying. As was usual of late, waking up that early was not easy; we had been going very hard the past two weeks, and 5 hours of sleep had become the norm. I woke up to an unusually dark bedroom. I stepped out into the kitchen and lo! it had rained! It was still raining! The soft pitter patter of raindrops bouncing off the roof and the deck, which lay before the kitchen window, was like the sound of Bach No. 1 playing softly through my stereo.

This rain has been looked for for quite a few days, with most of the crop not yet germinating; its soil just too dry to support water imbibition. Indeed, as I explained in my last post, we needed a rain, and if we had gone through this week without one, we would have been worried. In fact, this was the first shot of precipitation on most of our land since the snow on May 1st (see “Winter Returns”). That is an abnormally dry May, by a long shot.

Throughout the day on Monday we received a total of 9 tenths of rain. I realize that living in Canada should mean that I should say we received 23 mm of rain, but we still measure it in inches here for the most part. Anyway, it came down lightly and slowly, allowing for maximum soil absorption and less chance of crusting off the topsoil. It really was an ideal moisture event.

Yes, if you were expecting a “but” to come in here somewhere, you’d be right. I know, typical farmer, always finding a reason to complain. But if you give me a moment, I think I can explain my concerns to you in a non-complaining fashion.

You see, while this rain was nice, it is still the 28th of May. We still have a third of the crop to put in, which will take approximately one week. Our time window is tightening. We still have more than half of our most economically important crop to seed yet: canola. Seeding this crop late often has significant yield repercussions. It is looking more and more like this will be the case.

The forecast does not look good. After a rain like this, sun and heat are what we need. Instead, we are receiving cool, showery weather for the better part of the 7-day forecast. Worse yet, we may be in the unfortunate position of receiving 2-3 inches of moisture from Thursday to Friday. That would set us back heavily, keeping us out of the field for days and hurting the crops that are currently in.

Since 2010, we seem to swing from one extreme to the other, from wet to dry to wet to dry, with wet dominating. We cannot seem to break from this frustrating weather pattern. Our land cannot handle such downpours of rain. It is too flat, too heavy (clay) and too saline to effectively allow precipitation like this to drain away quickly. Rains like this can cause severe damage, and not just to our crops. Flooding is a very real possibility, which affects us all.

Perhaps I am being too overdramatic. This is after all only a forecast, which are known to be wrong (often) and we do not yet know what effect a rain like this would have. Time will tell. I can assure you of one thing: when we can get back into the fields, it will be an around the clock endeavor. Time will not be on our side; and the pendulum has swung away from the dry cycle we were in. Rain will be our enemy now.