Central Alberta farmers are hoping to see rain and higher temperatures soon to give this year’s crop a push in the right direction.
“The big situation is the moisture right now,” said Cody McIntosh, Red Deer County agricultural services manager.
The Red Deer area seems to be right on the edge of the driest areas and has not got as much rain as land to the north.
“Anything south of us is extremely dry. Red Deer, I would say, is below average and to the north of us is looking much better, to the point of excess moisture,” said McIntosh.
“As you get further east, it’s drying out quite a bit. But we’re not in the situation of south of Calgary. I don’t think they have had decent rain for a couple of years.
“Since the spring of 2020, I don’t think there’s been notable moisture.”
This spring, Red Deer has had a few douses of precipitation, including the snowfall about a month ago.
Seeding conditions are not too bad but “we really need to follow it up with some frequent and steady rain.”
The start to the seeding season got pushed back a few days this year, both because there was not a lot of moisture, but also because of the unseasonably cold temperatures until recently.
“Everybody held off until the last couple of weeks and now they’re going hard to get it in the ground before the rains come.”
Jim Wood, who is growing wheat, barley, canola and oats in the Delburne area, said planting conditions are generally pretty average. The precipitation has been spotty, with some areas getting much-needed rain while only a few kilometres away or even on the same farm getting missed.
“It can be quite unfair sometimes on how the clouds open up.”
The cold has also slowed progress in many areas.
“When it’s freezing at night the chemical (fertilizer) doesn’t uptake properly. It’s been a challenge for weed control at this point,” said Wood, who is also mayor of Red Deer County.
Getting the fertilizer into the ground, isn’t the only issue facing farmers, it’s paying for the crop helper.
Fertilizer prices have soared since last year, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the situation.
“These are the highest fertilizer prices I’ve seen in all the times I’ve farmed,” said Wood, who has been farming for more than 30 years.
Fertilizer that costs $1,500 now would have cost less than half of that a year ago.
Soaring oil prices have pushed up the cost and sanctions on exports from Russia, a major world fertilizer supplier, have created shortfalls, further boosting prices.
Partly offsetting higher input costs are commodity prices that are at their highest levels in years for some crops. Whether high prices will be enough won’t be known until the crop is sold. And if farmers must invest so much more to grow a crop that is later hit by drought or hail, then the financial hit could be all that much higher.
“It creates a little bit more uncertainty,” said Wood.
McIntosh said he is hearing the same story from other farmers in the region, fertilizer is hard to get and it’s expensive. At the same time, low moisture levels raise the question of whether it is worth spending a lot on fertilizer.
“I know it has affected many cropping plans,” he said, adding many farmers might reduce their fertilizer investment and accept lower yields in hopes high prices balance it all out in the right direction.
Farmers have some flexibility in what they plant. The question for some becomes do you plant a crop that requires a lot of expensive fertilizer or go with something with lower input costs, such as peas and lentils.
“We could be seeing more peas and lentils and less wheat and canola,” he said.
“But we have strong wheat and canola markets right now so it is kind of a difficult decision if they adjust their cropping plans because of high input costs.”
Whatever happens, central Alberta farmers are part of a Canadian agricultural community that is more important than ever given the impact of the war in Ukraine on food supplies, said Wood.
“It’s extremely necessary to feed the world right now. Somehow or another, at least, our crops in Alberta can be sent to the people in need.”