Warm winter weather a concern for summer crops, expert says

Warm weather has made winter a little more tolerable for Albertans this year, but one expert says it’s both a blessing and a curse for the province’s farmers.

A U of A professor says warm temperatures and little snow this winter could spell trouble for summer crops.

Warm winter weather can be good for cattle ranchers, but bad for Alberta's crops, said Stan Blade, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. (CBC)

Warm weather has made winter a little more tolerable for Albertans this year, but one expert says it's both a blessing and a curse for the province's farmers.

Stan Blade is the dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. He says the persistent lack of snow and temperatures hovering above zero province-wide is cause for concern for some producers in Alberta's multi-billion dollar agricultural industry.

Blade, who grew up on a dairy and grain farm in Millet, says it's still too early to tell exactly how much this weather could affect summer crops in particular -- but says it's a question on farmers' minds right now.

"It's … very tough to complain about great weather, and what I hear from our producers across the province is it makes life easier. Equipment starts, you don't have to snowplow you don't have to do all the kinds of things that you normally have to do," Blade said.

"But people are starting to wonder about the moisture that might be available with the reduced snow pack."

Extreme seasonal weather isn't new for Alberta. This summer, the provincial government declared crop losses an economic disaster. Spring drought and hail in the summer of 2015 led to a harvest about 25 per cent less than the five-year average, according to an August provincial crop report.

Cold weather hinders pests, Blade says

Cold winter weather can often delay or eradicate insects and spores in the soil that can ruin crops, Blade said, but we haven't had any long stretches of significant cold weather yet this winter. The insects we have in Alberta usually multiply in cycles during the growing season, and if they get an early start due to the mild weather, Blade said it could become a bigger problem this summer.

To combat insect infestations, farmers would be forced to adapt through new technology or crops, he added. Changing winter weather also has some farmers thinking about diversifying their crops. Crops like peas and lentils that do well in Alberta now weren't being grown 30 to 50 years ago, Blade said.

Another problem with a warm winter is that it can impact the effectiveness of fertilizer laid on crops in the fall, Blade said, and freeze-thaw cycles aren't good for winter wheat and alfalfa, especially if this happens in February and March.

"This is kind of like one of those exciting things where you have to wait until the end of the movie," Blade said. "We have hundreds of thousands of acres of those crops across the province and I think farmers are worried. Usually that blanket of snow is a real useful protection for those crops."

But the warm weather isn't bad news for all farmers -- cattle ranchers have gotten a bit of a break this winter, Blade said.

"(With) warm weather, it's just easier to get out there to feed cattle," he said. "Cattle don't eat as much under warm weather conditions. I think that the cattle industry itself is actually enjoying the way that this particular winter has gone."


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