Crops under siege

Already reeling from unseasonal snowfall that flattened fields and put the brakes on this year’s harvest, Central Alberta farmers were bracing last night for a killing frost that would further undermine the yield and quality of their 2014 crops.

Already reeling from unseasonal snowfall that flattened fields and put the brakes on this year’s harvest, Central Alberta farmers were bracing last night for a killing frost that would further undermine the yield and quality of their 2014 crops.

Environment Canada was expecting temperatures in the region to dip to -6 C — a level that would be particularly detrimental to seeds that haven’t yet ripened.

“The frost will basically end the season,” said Harry Brook, an Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development crop specialist at the department’s Ag-Info Centre in Stettler.

He estimated that 15 to 20 per cent of the crops in this area were seeded late, and that these would have seeds with high moisture levels that make them vulnerable to freezing.

“Above 20 per cent it’s susceptible to frost; below 20 per cent it’s not.”

Even cereal grains that are ripe could suffer discolouration from a hard frost and be graded down as a result.

Of greater concern to many producers is the snowfall that pushed crops to the ground, said Brook.

“It means that there are going to be difficulties in harvesting,” he said, explaining that crops that lodge in multiple directions can be difficult to pick up.

“It’s not like a big wind comes by and blows it all down in one direction. It’s willy-nilly, so any direction that you cut it you’re going to lose crop.”

Plus, added Brook, harvesting will have to proceed at a slower pace.

“You’re going to slow down the rate of combining, probably by at least two-thirds.”

Many crops that were slated for straight-combining will now have to be swathed, he said, which will add another time-consuming step to the process.

Also, snow-flattened crops will take longer to dry. And if they remain wet for an extended period, there’s a risk that some seeds could sprout.

Brook estimated that harvest was about 25 per cent complete when the wet weather hit.

“It was looking good.”

Things could still turn out OK if farmers get a week or two of warm, dry weather. And that appears to be the way the weatherman is leaning.

“If it dries up like they’re predicting, we could be all right,” said Brook.

He’s anticipating that many farmers will be worried about nitrate levels in their greenfeed if a hard frost hits. That’s because nitrates can be concerted into toxic nitrites in the stomachs of ruminant animals like cattle and sheep.

“Drought, hail, frost — whatever will adversely affect the upper part of the plant and prevent it from functioning normally can cause nitrate accumulation.”

But Brook doesn’t think nitrate levels will be severe in most cases.

“If you’ve got questions about it, harvest the stuff and then test it before you feed it.”

As for commodity prices, Brook noted that the corn and soybean crops in the United States are shaping up to be big ones, while wheat production south of the border doesn’t appear as strong.

“So I guess if you’re looking to the future, there might be more positive news on wheat than on the rest of the cereals and oilseeds.”

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