Following an incredibly soggy spring, summer, and fall, this past winter [2011-12] produced next to nothing by way of precipitation and Canadian temperatures hovered embarrassingly close to zero, with only a few snowfalls and frigid days scattered here and there. As such, some farmers may be wondering just how the lack of snowfall and mild temperatures may be affecting their winter wheat crops.
According to Scott Chalmers, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food, and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) Diversification Technician with Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO) in Melita, [Manitoba] there is nothing to worry about…so far.
Obviously, this is good news—especially since reports from Statistics Canada show that the number of seeded acres of winter wheat in Manitoba jumped from 200,000 in 2010 to 580,000 in 2011 (Saskatchewan farmers also doubled their acres). This is because, in retaliation to the flood and last year’s highly unsuccessful crop yields, farmers doubled up on their winter wheat acres hoping to get a head start on their crops for the next growing season. In their hurry, many of these farmers planted their winter crops into a field without stubble, which, Chalmers admits, is generally a tremendous farming faux pas.
Typically, stubble acts as a protectant from the winter elements and snow acts as an insulation barrier to keep the soil temperature above -12 degrees Celsius—a dangerous temperature for winter wheat. This year’s crops had neither of those things going for them.
Fortuitously, the mild winter climate meant that the soil temperature stayed above the troublesome -12 degree point, only dipping as low as -8 degrees when the temperature took a steep downturn in mid January.
“After last spring, farmers really lucked out with the mild conditions this winter,” says Chalmers. “There was a point in December when we thought it might be too dry for it to desiccate, but then we got a couple decent snowfalls around Christmas that seemed to do the trick.”
Chalmers’ position is backed by winter wheat plants recently dug up by a Souris-area farmer. Though looking a little worse for wear, the plants have entered the beginning stages of growth. In addition, a Winter Wheat Survival Model developed by Brian Fowler of the University of Saskatchewan shows, through a comparison of the winter hardiness of the variety and the average soil crown temperature, that winter wheat crops in the Brandon area are doing just fine (www.wheatworkers.ca/FowlerSite/winter_cereals/WWModel.php).
Furthermore, Chalmers explains that if weather trends continue and precipitation levels remain low, the many farmers who have planted winter wheat will have a jump on the situation with crops already well on their way. And because water table levels are still high as a result of last year’s flooding, he says that even if it is a dry year, any precipitation we do get will probably suffice given that the ground is still saturated six inches down.
“For now, there’s really nothing to worry about, but farmers should dig up their plants in April to check for root development and crown health. That way, if they find their crops didn’t survive the winter they still have time to decide whether or not to reseed a different crop.”
If that is the case, or for those who chose not to seed acres upon acres of winter wheat, Chalmers recommends planting soybeans—as long as there is rain in the long-term forecast. “Their popularity has risen for a couple of reasons: they can stand a lot of moisture, the crop can now be insured, the prices are high, and they like high soil temperatures.
If it looks like it’s going to be a hot, dry summer, drought tolerant crops such as warm season cereals like as corn or millet sown into tilled fields are the way to go. Whereas, if a cool, dry summer is expected, sticking to cool season cereals such as wheat, oats and barley would be better suited.
As well, farmers will have to keep an eye on soil moisture and watch out for weeds, especially kochia. “Because of the flood and then the lack of precipitation there will be a lot of saline in the soils and kochia and saline soil practically go hand-in-hand.”
So winter wheat-growers can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for now. After all, says Chalmers, they successfully grow the crop in Kansas, which has a winter climate much like we’ve seen in Manitoba this year.
Published in the Virden Empire-Advance Agricultural Section. March, 2012.