Sask. farmers using trees, winter crops to combat climate change-driven heat

As drought has made for a poor growing season, farmers in the Prairies are struggling to combat the hotter weather that science suggests could worsen with climate change.

Climate change could bring more dry seasons to the Prairies, says hydrologist

Ian McCreary, a farmer near Bladworth, Sask., looks over his barren hayfield. Across the Prairies, unusually dry conditions are jeopardizing crops this year. (Shannon McCreary)

Stuart Dougan wasn't optimistic about his crops' chances this year. Relentless heat and a lack of rain have reduced his grains to small, shrivelled husks, but he says "they're hanging on."

Dougan grows a mix of barley, wheat, canola and peas on 560 acres in Saskatchewan. He is one of many producers in the province battling Mother Nature's cruel hot and dry year.

It's evocative of the summer of 1988, when heat devastated crops across North America. This year, dry fields in the Prairies have restricted many crops to barely more than stubble.

The drought has become so severe that the rural municipality of Excelsior in southern Saskatchewan this week declared a local state of emergency because of its "agriculture disaster." The RM is calling for disaster relief from various levels of government.

Dougan has shelterbelts — rows of trees that shield crops from the wind. In the winter, trees catch snow, and in the right places, they can hold onto it so the soil gets more moisture in the spring. 

While other farmers have removed their trees to plant more crops, Dougan has planted them tactically to his advantage. 

"I like trees, personally. They're good for me, they're good for the wildlife, good for the land," he said. "The canola did much better between the tree rows; it was just not getting whipped by the wind." 

Dougan expects his yields will exceed those of 1988. He credits better seeds, his use of trees and a no-till policy, which involves using chemicals to kill off weeds and then reseeding, rather than dragging the fields to remove old seeds and weeds. Tilling disturbs the soil, releases moisture and contributes to soil erosion.

"There's not much you can do to fight the weather," Dougan said. "It's hard to control Mother Nature. She's going to do what she wants to do." 

Worst drought in past 50 years

Seasons have been dry leading up to his year, but this one is historically bad.

In some sections of the Prairies, it is the worst drought in at least 50 years, said John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, and a professor of geography and planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

In Manitoba, it could be the worst drought since settlement in the 1800s, Pomeroy said.

The extreme conditions have piqued Pomeroy's interest. One of his projects looks at the future of agriculture in the Prairies and southern Ontario.

The extreme heat is driven by climate change and will likely only get worse in the latter half of the 21st century, Pomeroy noted.

He said more rain is also expected, but research hasn't determined if it will be enough to offset the rise in temperatures.

"Saskatchewan agriculture has adapted over many years to dry land conditions and persistent drought. That's part of what we do. But this particular event is taxing even the innovations that producers have made over time," he said. 

Probably the worst weather we've had, certainly since 1988.- Ian McCreary, Saskatchewan farmer

The latest crop report, covering July 27 to Aug. 2, said that only three per cent of topsoil for crop farmers has adequate moisture. About 66 per cent of it is very short.

Pomeroy wants the federal government to accelerate the Canada Water Agency, which has a proposed mandate to best manage our water resources, including addressing floods, drought and climate change in vulnerable regions, like the Prairies. About $17.4 million was put toward its creation in the 2021 federal budget.

Holding onto moisture through the seasons

"[It's] probably the worst weather year we've had, certainly since 1988," said Ian McCreary, a grain and livestock farmer near Bladworth, Sask.

Much of his land won't "yield anything," he says, while the better crops are yielding less than one-half of a regular year. Even so, McCreary thinks he's doing better than many farmers in the province.

Both he and Paul Thoroughgood, a multi-crop farmer near Moose Jaw, Sask., have been planting winter crops. They are planted just before autumn and pause growth over winter, starting again when it's warm enough.

The crops drink the snowmelt and are harvested in the spring. In seasons like this, where Thoroughgood only had about 12 centimetres of rain since spring, it's supposed to be a blessing. This was the first year his winter crops didn't make it through the season, though, due to a lack of snow and the extreme cold. 

Very few farmers have opted for winter crops.

A 2017 census on crop production found about 235,000 acres of winter wheat were seeded in Saskatchewan and 233,000 were harvested. For comparison, nearly seven million acres of spring wheat were seeded that year. 

McCreary is growing high erucic acid rapeseed, which is similar to canola, in this field. (Shannon McCreary)

It's important to McCreary that farmers pay heed to climate change. He's kept all his trees and engages in environmentally friendly farming. 

McCreary said farmers can reduce their carbon footprint by keeping organic matter in the soil. He also wants to see a wetland and tree policy for Saskatchewan to regenerate some of the lost trees. 

Thoroughgood also said he's been trying to make his farming more sustainable. 

"I look at sustainability as doing a good job today — but also doing a good job for tomorrow," he said. "I think we owe it to the next generations."


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