Producers should plan for delayed growth: analyst

February might be too early to fret about spring soil moisture levels. But as each day of warm, dry winter weather passes, farmers could be forgiven for becoming increasingly uneasy.

February might be too early to fret about spring soil moisture levels. But as each day of warm, dry winter weather passes, farmers could be forgiven for becoming increasingly uneasy.

Agriculture Financial Services Corp. is pointing out that dry soil conditions and below-average snow packs are contributing to concerns about the outlook for forage crops and lands.

“Producers should plan for delayed growth on their hay and pasture lands this spring and be prepared to keep their herds on winter feed supplies for at least a week longer than usual — possibly longer, depending on when we get some moisture,” said Grant Lastiwka, a forage and grazing specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, in a release issued by AFSC. “The dry conditions really snuck up on us after such a wet start to the growing season last year.”

In the south and southeast areas of Red Deer County, soil moisture is at one-in-six-year lows. This situation could reverse quickly with spring rain or snow, said Lastiwka. But if it doesn’t, the Feb. 29 deadline for hay and pasture insurance will have already passed.

The consequence of delayed growth and/or winterkill of hay and pasture stands would be the loss of an important source of livestock feed, said Lastiwka.

“Grazing is half the cost of conventional feed systems. As producers begin rebuilding their cow herds after years of poor prices, protecting their lowest-cost feed source is an important consideration.”

Although 2011 was marked by wet conditions in June and July, the rain clouds were largely absent in the latter half of the year, said Ralph Wright, an Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development soil moisture specialist.

“By early September, our soil moisture was depleted. And from August to mid-November the rains basically stopped falling in many parts of Alberta — preventing the soils from getting a fall moisture recharge for next year’s crops before the ground froze.”

Many hay and pasture stands stopped growing in August and became dormant, added Lastiwka, forcing them to survive longer on their winter energy reserves. They’ll likely now be slower to start growing in the spring and are more vulnerable to winterkill.

But Wright also pointed out that a crisis is still a couple months away — and soil moisture levels could change drastically by then.

“Alberta is a land of extremes, with lots of sudden swings from prolonged dry periods to wet conditions. All we can do is wait and see.”