Rain is of the essence

Many farmers in east-Central Alberta could be headed for either an early harvest or a late one — with neither a desirable result.

Canola fields are in full bloom in Central Alberta and ready for harvest.

Many farmers in east-Central Alberta could be headed for either an early harvest or a late one — with neither a desirable result.

Dry conditions in the region have already resulted in some crops being written off, with others teetering on the edge of viability.

“I’m thinking if we don’t get rain in the next week and a half, two weeks, you’re going to start seeing some cereal crops harvested either as green feed or for forage purposes,” said Harry Brook, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development’s Ag-Info Centre in Stettler.

If rain does come, producers could still find themselves dealing with crops that were delayed by the cool spring. Some will also have plants at two levels of maturity: those that germinated shortly after seeding and others that didn’t start growing until moisture conditions improved.

“You’ve got one third of your crop coming that will be mature in August, and then the majority of it’s going to be ready to cut something around Christmas,” said Brook.

But the immediate concern is moisture.

Canola fields have probably been the hardest hit by the hot, dry weather, said Brook. Wheat and barley crops are also showing signs of stress, however.

Some pea crops were looking good earlier in the season, but many of these are developing small pods and are unusually short.

“The trick is, how are you going to pick those things off the ground?” asked Brooks, pointing out that too much dirt in the harvested peas could bump them down to livestock feed grade.

Rainfall earlier this month was a big help, but precipitation levels varied greatly from region to region, said Brook. Even fields that got a good soaking are now in need of more moisture.

“A crop uses up to five millimetres of moisture (a day) when it’s at heading and filling time.”

Jeff Nielsen, who farms near Olds, agreed that growing conditions appear worst to the east. But prospects for farmers in his area also leave something to be desired.

“They’re not good — less than average crops for sure.”

Nielsen, who is a director with the Canadian Wheat Board, said spotty germination in the spring and an early June frost have adversely affected crops. Growth is also behind schedule.

“The stands aren’t what they were last year, and we’re still going to need timely rains to progress the crop. But what we really need is a fairly long period into September without any hard frosts.”

Kevin Bender, who farms near Bentley, said the situation in his neighbourhood is OK — for now.

“Our crops are looking good yet, but they’re at the point where they’re going to have to have some water soon.”

Canola is suffering from the current heat, he observed, and continued dry weather will reduce the yields of other crops as well.

Bender, who’s president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, a delegate with the Alberta Barley Commission and a director with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, is also worried about the slow start to the 2009 growing season. A reckoning could come when the first frost hits, he acknowledged.

The Canadian Wheat Board has forecast a general decline in crops this year, said Nielsen. The picture should become clearer once a current crop analysis is completed.

One bright spot identified by Bender is the fact producers’ costs have come down in the areas of fertilizer and interest rates.

Still, noted Brook, the cost of growing and harvesting a crop remains about $250 to $300 an acre. Many producers can’t afford a bad year, he said, even if they have crop insurance.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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