Drought fears weigh on prairie farms

After a dry fall and winter, and with record dryness in scattered parts of the country — but especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan — farmers and ranchers are waiting to see how wet this spring will be.

Some areas are driest in 25 years, and more than farming could be affected

In the flat, sparsely populated prairie where Charles Schmidt farms near Oyen, Alta. — 300 kilometres east of Calgary — everyone, he says, is in "drought mode."

"Everybody is looking at all their expenses and trying to defer … any money they absolutely don't have to spend: machinery maintenance, vehicle purchases, house maintenance," Schmidt told CBC News.

Ranchers are considering whether to sell off some of their animals if drought forces up feed costs. ((CBC))

After a dry fall and winter, with record dryness in scattered parts of the country — but especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan — farmers and ranchers are waiting to see how wet this spring will be. 

Schmidt farms in the Special Areas, a 2.1-million-hectare region in east central Alberta where the understanding of drought is especially acute. It has been administered by a provincially appointed board ever since local government there collapsed during the Depression as people moved away, fleeing the extreme hardship of the1930s drought years.

The people who farm there now have raised moisture conservation and soil management to an intricate science.

"If I had the moisture [this spring] they had in the '30s, I'd have good crops, I have no doubt about that," he says.

But after 2½ years of below-normal moisture and not much snow cover over the winter, Schmidt and his neighbours are watching the skies, wary about getting too little rainfall this spring.

After an unusually dry fall and winter, several areas of the country have record low moisture (see national map).

The map shows how precipitation from Sept. 1, 2009, to March 28, 2010, compares with the historical trend. The red areas indicate record dryness. ((Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada))

A wide area of southern Ontario has been affected.

"Spring moisture will be needed to make those areas … productive for this summer," Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture Canada, told CBC News. 

Ontario and other dry areas of the country, however, have a reasonable store of moisture in the soil from last year. That's not the case for a wide swath of Alberta, parts of western Saskatchewan, and the area around Kamloops, B.C., that suffered drought last summer.

A dry fall and winter have made for a "fairly significant problem," said Hadwen, because soil moisture levels for this time of year are "extremely low."

Alberta has a wide area where the land is the driest it has been in 12- or even 25-year periods (see provincial map).

The map shows precipitation in Alberta over the year ending March 28, 2010. The dark red areas are the driest in 25 years and lighter red are the driest in 12 years. ((Alberta Agriculture))

As extensive as those areas appear now, everything could be fine if they get their normal precipitation over the next three months.

"Through the months of May, June and July on average we get about 50 per cent of our annual precipitation," Ralph Wright, a soil moisture specialist with Alberta Agriculture, told CBC News.

It'll also make a difference how the rainfall is distributed over time.

"You can get that 100 millimetres (the average in June in many parts of Alberta) in the first two days of June and the rest of June is hot and dry.  That's going to cause moisture stress," he said.

Twenty-five millimetres each week would be perfect.

"It's so difficult to predict what's going to happen," said Wright.

At this time, it's livestock producers who have the most to worry about.

"They're going to need a significant amount of rainfall over the next couple of months to get them into a position where those pastures and the forage systems can recover," said Hadwen.

That's certainly true for Schmidt's neighbours who raise cattle. Ranchers are considering what to do in order to have enough feed or whether to sell off some of their animals.

"People are making those big management decisions that can affect your business for a decade," he says.

If it's an unusually dry spring in those areas of Canada that already have record dry soil, more than agriculture will be affected.

The conditions in the northern boreal forests and the aspen parkland north of Edmonton raise concern about forest fires and even the loss of wildlife habitat. Water storage behind hydroelectric dams and industrial water use could also be affected.

Schmidt says it's an issue consumers should take seriously.

Given that grain goes into everything from bread to chewing gum, he says, "do you want to be at the mercy of another country selling us our staple products?"

Still, despite being hailed out two years ago, Schmidt will plant 2,100 hectares of wheat, feed barley, brown mustard and green lentils this spring and hope for rain. There's a reason why people call the area "Next Year Country," with the perennial hopefulness that implies.

"I'm a perpetual optimist," he says. "If I wasn't, it would drive a person absolutely crazy if you came off a year like last year. But we keep doing the same thing over and expect better results."