Sask. farmers say drought conditions worst in decades

Saskatchewan farmers say drought conditions in some parts of the province are the worst they have seen in decades and today’s higher operating costs will make it harder to bounce back.

Farmers, ranchers face tough season due to hot, dry weather

Michel Lepage from St. Denis, Sask. says his canola crops won't produce as much in this year's dry conditions. (Olivier Ferapie/CBC Radio-Canada)

Saskatchewan farmers say drought conditions in some parts of the province are the worst they have seen in decades and higher operating costs these days will make it harder to bounce back.

Fields in some southern parts of the province are so parched that seeds have failed to germinate, leaving some farmers with little or no hay for feed.

Some areas have seen less than 100 millimetres of moisture since April, according to the latest crop report.

Alan Dumontel is a semi-retired farmer whose son and daughter-in-law manage cattle in one of the worst-affected areas near Frontier, Sask., about 400 kilometres southwest of Regina.

Not the 1st drought

He remembers bouts of dry conditions in the 1960s, '70s and '80s but said farmers had gotten used to higher-than-average rainfall in the past 15 to 20 years.

Dumontel said it was a shock to go back to drier conditions.

"It's new to the young people but it's not new to us," said Dumontel.

"We've seen this before many times, it's just kind of a bit uncommon to have 27 inches of rain last year and back up with a drought here."

A map that illustrates the cumulative rainfall, or lack thereof, from April 1 to July 10 in Saskatchewan. (Government of Saskatchewan )

Too wet, then too dry

Dumontel said wet, muddy conditions at the start of the season left his family with a window of only a week to seed their fields.

Since then, he said it has been so dry that the seeds in his field never got enough moisture to germinate.

Although he has been through drought before, he expected that higher operating costs would make it tougher for farmers in the worst-hit areas to recover.

"The problem is now you need a lot more money to operate these operations and it's not the same as it was in the dry years before," said Dumontel.

"You know, we always had expenses but they are not like they are now."

Cattle farmers feeling the pinch

He said operating expenses had risen with higher incomes over the years but this year's drought conditions would make it tougher for some to keep up with those costs.

Dumontel predicted cattle farmers would be worst affected because they have mouths to feed at a time when hay will be more scarce and more expensive.

Pioneer Co-op agronomist Eric Oliver said cattle ranchers were already feeling the pinch, with a combination of hay expenses and water issues.

Dry conditions bring the risk of toxic blue-green algae developing in dugouts, and salinity problems that can be fatal to livestock if left unchecked.

Earlier this month, 200 animals in a grazing pasture near Shamrock, Sask., died from a combination of dehydration, poor water quality and heat.

Water issues

Oliver said addressing serious water-quality problems could be costly.

"They're going to have to either move cattle to a different location where there is water or haul water to them," he said.

Oliver also noted the stark contrast between current conditions and the wet conditions earlier this year that forced some farmers to seed later than usual, only to find their crops parched within a matter of months.

"For those crops that are very severely affected, it's game over for this year. It's next-year country, so they're just trying to salvage what they can," he said.

Canola a fragile crop

For those farmers whose crops are still standing, the yield might still be disappointing.

Michel Lepage grows canola, wheat and barley on about 800 acres near St-Denis, Sask.

He said canola is a more fragile crop that needs more moisture to produce properly.

"The wind, the heat will limit the time that the crop has to flower," said Lepage.

"And if it doesn't flower long enough then the pods that the flowers produce will be less numerous and won't be as big, so they won't produce as much."