Frost hurts crops

Central Albertans who awoke Friday morning to discover frost on their windows might have said a silent goodbye to summer.

Central Albertans who awoke Friday morning to discover frost on their windows might have said a silent goodbye to summer.

At the same time, area farmers were bidding farewell to the prospects of a bountiful harvest — but probably not as quietly.

Subzero temperatures, which approached -4C in Red Deer, put a sudden end to the growing season, confirmed Harry Brook, a field crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture’s Ag Info Centre in Stettler.

“I don’t want to call it disastrous, but on an individual basis it could be.”

It wasn’t that the year’s first killing frost came early. Rather, the growing season that preceded it was so poor crops were vulnerable when it arrived.

“We’re short about 200 growing degree days from where we should be over the long-term averages,” said Brook, referring to the accumulation of hours in which temperatures are high enough to support photosynthesis.

The norm for Red Deer at this point is about 1,600; we’re currently around 1,400.

“It’s been a very cool summer and there’s been just not enough heat.”

The adverse weather affected the entire province, said Brook, recounting how one farmer near Medicine Hat told him he has yet to harvest his winter wheat — usually one of the first crops to come off.

“They’re no further ahead than we are. That is highly unusual.”

However, areas south of Olds appear to have ducked the heavy frost.

Immature crops hit by the frigid conditions will almost certainly grade down, said Brook, adding that yields will also suffer in the case of immature plants.

With canola, more seeds will remain green, which in turn will hurt quality. No. 1 canola, which must have fewer than two per cent green seeds, could sell for more than $9 a bushel; sample canola, which is more than 20 per cent green, is likely to bring a farmer only $1 to $2, said Brook.

“There’s really no market for it.”

He estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of the canola had been swathed by Friday. But unless it was down for a number of days before the heavy frost hit it may not have dried enough to escape damage — simply because conditions haven’t been conducive for drying.

Cereals are also likely to grade down and less mature crops will lose weight, said Brook. An added concern is that damage to the bran in kernels could affect germination.

“I kind of wonder if we’re going to be maybe short of seed grains next year,” he said, adding that germination worries apply to malting barley as well.

“There is a possibility there might not be a whole lot of malt barley coming out of Alberta.”

In the case of green feed and swath-grazing, there is a danger the frost could result in elevated nitrate levels that renders the plants unsuitable for livestock.

“What happens when a killing frost hits, the top part of the plant is killed off — it’s no longer functioning,” explained Brook. “But the roots take about three days to get the message the plant’s dead, so they continue to accumulate nitrates and shove it up to the top part of the plant.”

One positive of a killing frost is that it eliminates the need to watch the thermometer.

“If it’s frozen once and it’s killed the plant, really another frost isn’t going to do any more damage,” said Brook.

But farmers still need decent weather for their crops to dry. Otherwise, they could find themselves with fields lodged by snowfall or degrading and germinating in damp swaths.

“Then you’ve really got a mess.”

Producers could be forgiven for wondering what might have happened if the sun had shone a bit more and Jack Frost’s arrival had been a bit later.

“With a September like last year, we would of had a really good crop because the yield is there, it’s just that the quality has gone down,” observed Brook.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com