Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Weather sows seeds of despair

Late start means low yields, less cash

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A cold and wet spring has Manitoba farmers watching over fields of streams that have delayed the seeding season and threaten the fall harvest.

Typically, farmers begin seeding their land in the last week of April or first week of May but poor weather -- including snow two weeks ago that took three days to melt in parts of the province -- has put them way behind schedule. It has reached the point where many farmers are considering abandoning their traditional crops such as corn and soy beans in favour of faster-growing ones, such as barley and flax, said Don Dewar, a Dauphin-area farmer.

"People are starting to question global warming. The land just isn't drying up. The soil is cold and the crops that are seeded are very slow growing. I seeded some canola in the first week of May that should have the ground covered by now and you can barely see the roses of the crop. The ground should be covered with plants," he said.

"It's a real struggle. Some farmers haven't been able to start (seeding) and don't know when they'll be able to start. People will try to grow their canola. Different varieties mature quicker. There's a yield loss on those varieties but at least you still get the crop."

Dewar said this spring's weather is the worst in recent history and is reminiscent of a particularly miserable seeding season in the mid-'70s.

"As I recall, we had some crops freeze on us (in the fall)," he said.

Some of the central and eastern areas of Manitoba that border the Red River, which flooded earlier this spring, are still under water.

"I'm not sure some of those guys are going to get a crop in there this year. There's still water running out of the fields there," said Ian Wishart, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers in Winnipeg. "It is really wet there. They need a lot of good weather."

A late start to the growing season significantly increases the risk of crops freezing in the fall before they've reached maturity for harvest and it also impacts farmers' income. The rule of thumb is one per cent yield is lost for every day of seeding delays.

Bruce Burnett, director of weather and crop surveillance for the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg, said the beginning of June is considered late to be planting crops such as wheat, canola and corn.

"In agriculture, we all seem to be optimists about these things," Burnett said. "So, hopefully we get a window here so that most of this land can get planted."

The situation in Manitoba is in stark contrast to conditions in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where the ground is so dry, farmers are worried seeds may not germinate because they're sitting in dust.

"They're looking for rain, they can have some of ours," said Robert McLean, a farmer near Manitou in southern Manitoba. "It's been such a cool, damp spring, it's never really dried out."

McLean said he only has 40 per cent of his canola and wheat crops seeded. Normally, he'd be finished by this time of year, but most of his fields aren't dry enough to be seeded.

He confirmed that grass isn't showing yet in any of his pastures either and he's run out of hay for his cattle. But there's a slight hint of optimism in his tone.

"It's gotta warm up one of these times, right?" he said.

Dewar agreed and said a stretch of hot and windy weather can help farmers catch up pretty quickly.

"The prayer mats have been out for awhile," he said.

-- with files from The Canadian Press


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2009 A3

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