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Chilly weather sows seeds of discontent

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With the farm equipment they have today, Manitoba farmers can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time -- weather permitting. But this year, the weather isn't.

In a good year, seeding across the province would be more than half done by the time the cottagers head to the lake on the May long weekend. As of this week, seeding progress in most regions was at less than 10 per cent.

Snow squalls were leaving enough white stuff on the ground a few days ago that farmers in northwest Manitoba were making snowballs instead of grain. And the latest long-term forecast suggests the summer might be chilly.

The provincial government's May 12 crop report, the second one of the season, tells a sad, soggy story. It's not just the damp, rainy weather that's holding things back, it's the fact soils are still too cold for good germination. Over all, soil temperatures are averaging about 4 C below normal for this time of year.

It's still enough for crops such as wheat, oats, barley or canola, which will germinate in soils in the low single digits, but not with the nice, even flush of green a farmer gets when temperatures are in the high teens. Specialty crops such as corn and soybeans need at least 10 C to get off to a good start.

When seeds sit in cold, wet soils, they become a prime target for pathogens that cause rot, cutting into germination rates by up to 50 per cent and reducing seedling vigour. Seed treatments offer some protection, but farmers are still advised to up their seeding rates to compensate for uneven germination, which adds another layer of cost to their crop before it's even out of the ground.

In its weekly advisory May 14, the Canola Council of Canada told farmers to stop waiting for warmth. "It's mid-May, so put away the soil thermometer. When you get the chance to seed, then seed," it said.

On another front, cooler-than-normal weather bought farmers time to do some important damage control on last year's crop, much of which is still in the bin because of last winter's transportation logjam.

When cold canola meets warm temperatures, condensation occurs, and that moisture can lead to spoilage, overheating and even fire. Agronomists have been warning farmers they must keep moving their stored canola to warm it up gradually, preferably to between 5 C and 10 C, so when hot weather hits, it doesn't create condensation shock.

The best way to go about it is to empty the bin entirely and load it into another, or draw the seed out of the bottom and pour it back in on top. To a casual observer, this would appear like a crazy exercise in futility, and to the farmer who had planned on marketing that grain months ago, it feels like a colossal waste of time. It might even create some localized warming due to cussing.

Cattle producers are equally frustrated with the spring weather. Cold soils have delayed pasture growth and winter forage stores were stretched thin by the prolonged winter and severe cold.

Some have had little choice but to move their herds to pastures that haven't had enough time or warmth to get a start on growth. Grazing a pasture before there is several inches of growth can cut the pasture's productive capacity for the season by as much as 45 per cent. As well, early spring pastures don't usually have enough forage to meet the needs of cows with nursing calves, so supplemental feeds are needed.

It makes for anxious times, to be sure. Yield potential for field crops drops with each passing day, and the risk of crop failure due to an early fall frost rises. But it's still too early to panic. Last year's spring was cold, wet and delayed too, yet farmers pulled off a record-setting crop that was an unheard-of 50 per cent above average.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 B9

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