Everybody knows that agriculture heavily relies on the weather. A single storm can change an entire growing season. A drought can be devastating. But we rarely see such extremes. While much of the weather we get can be challenging and surprising, it typically averages out over time. This winter, though, has been a particularly weird one- right?
I’m not going to go into the details of the weather of this winter. Suffice to say, we moved snow once this winter, and you could probably make the case that we just really wanted to run the dozer tractor. This has been a winter with very limited snow and very mild temperatures. We had a couple weeks of extreme cold in January, but realistically this has been one easy winter. February was so warm that we lost what little snow we had before March even started. That is a rare situation.
So what are the implications of this? Are we headed for a drought? Is it climate change? Has this ever happened before?
To point out how short our own memories often are, take a look at this picture from 2012. This is February 22nd (photo credit- Sarah Leguee). No snow! That was also an incredibly mild winter. In fact, some farmers in Southeast Saskatchewan started seeding at the beginning of April (spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out very well). My point is that winters like this are certainly rare, but not unheard of.
To figure out what a winter like this could mean for us, the best year to look at then is 2012. In this area, crops were good, and it was a pretty successful year. We saw excessive moisture in late May and June, followed by a lack of moisture into the end of July and August. The excess moisture in the spring caused some damage, but it probably saved us from getting burned up in late summer.
On the other hand, we had substantial disease and insect pressure. Was it because of the warm winter? I think it’s fair to say that it had an influence, possibly a major one. One thing our extreme winters give us is an inability for insects and diseases to overwinter here. Most of them must migrate up from the south. If they can survive the winter, it gives them a head start. We saw severe damage from Aster Yellows, we had trouble with Fusarium, and we had problems with a variety of insects. Separating what was caused by the warm winter and what was part of a normal cycle is difficult, but it is fair to say that we could face similar issues in 2016.
The challenge with farming is that every year is different. Parallels between seasons are very challenging to draw out, and due to the climate’s chaotic nature, forecasters have a very hard time forecasting what is to come. So what can we expect in 2016?
One thing we do know right now is that it is dry. Soil moisture is lower now than it was at this time last year, so we have less of a buffer to withstand periods of low moisture. This warm, dry winter has not helped our soils and water bodies recharge like they normally do. I have never scouted crops in the middle of March before, but I did just that the other day in our winter wheat. The soil is thawed, the crop may be breaking its winter dormancy, and it just pretty much felt like spring out there. It is concerningly early for the wheat to be greening up, and a stretch of more normal cold weather could wreak havoc on it.
As the weeks go by and it stays warm, sunny and frequently windy, the soil will continue to dry. We could theoretically start seeding in a couple of weeks (we won’t) with how quickly the soil is drying up. So, yes, drought is a concern, and the longer the weather stays like this, the greater the worry will become.
On the flip side, when the weather does change, it could do so with a vengeance. We have seen time and again over the past several years that when we change weather patterns, the conversion is often harsh. In the spring of 2011, we were considering seeding in mid to late April, until a bunch of snow dropped on our doorstep, followed by cold temperatures and over a foot of rain over the next two months. The weather changed dramatically and pretty much prevented seeding altogether. However, our fields were already full to capacity when that moisture came, so it was a completely different situation.
I guess the point of what I’m trying to say here is that we honestly really don’t know what the growing season will provide. Right now, I’d place my bets on being dry, and that we will be wanting for rain most of the year. But “dry” doesn’t equal “drought”, and I’m far from ready to hit the panic button yet. While this weather may be unusual, we have seen winters like this before, and we will again.
As farmers, we have to take whatever nature throws at us and make the best of it. We never know what weather we have in front of us, and accordingly we have a hard time determining how much to invest in our crops. We can throw all the money in the world at our crops, but if it doesn’t rain, we simply can’t make use of it. However, it is far too early to start worrying about the year ahead. We will not go out and go seeding on the 10th of April, but we might be a few days earlier than normal. Anything can happen over the next 6 months, and that is what makes agriculture so exciting. I can’t wait to see what Mother Nature has in store for us in 2016.
I don’t suppose your Canadian farmers suffer the same syndrome of ‘Recreational tillage’ as many farmers here in Scotland do. It is only that ploughing appears to be their main idea of a tillage solution.
Yes some older farmers still do! But the younger generation isn’t into that at all. It’s generally too dry here to do any heavy tillage anyway. No-till is very popular here, and for good reason.