If you were driving across southern Manitoba just over a week ago, you would have occasionally seen what looked like clouds of blackish smoke rising against the distant horizon.
But invariably, as the highway carried you over the next knoll, that smoke turned out to be dust rising from fields as a few farmers got a jump-start on spring operations.
These farmers have a common affliction among crop producers: the early spring-seeding itch. It seems it can only be relieved by tractor therapy.
For these farmers, the reality it was more than a month before spring field work would typically begin in this province was buried in the balmy temperatures and dry field conditions -- too dry, as evidenced by the dust wafting skyward. But was it too early?
That's the question on everyone's minds as nature once again started the year by throwing farmers a curveball. The answer depends on whom you're asking.
If it's the calendar you are consulting, definitely. Technically speaking, most of March belongs to winter.
Plus, it's Royal Manitoba Winter Fair week, which always falls during spring break in Brandon. It's common knowledge there's usually some kind of weather system involving rain or snow or both associated with that event. The weather this week was true to form.
If it were provincial extension agronomists you were asking, the weather and soil conditions were actually great for spring fertilizer applications, especially for winter cereals and forage crops just breaking dormancy. A shot of fertilizer first thing in the spring is considered important to help plants recover from winter injury and to promote new growth.
The mostly snowless winter was a stressor for both because they didn't get the usual insulating layer of snow to protect them from the cold. Thankfully it was mild, too, so producers are optimistic the rates of winterkill will be low.
However, the arm of government responsible for water-quality protection took some convincing.
Manitoba's newly revamped nutrient-management regulations don't allow fertilizer applications, either manufactured fertilizer or manure, between Nov. 10 and April 10 because applying on frozen soils increases the risk of runoff into waterways.
At the request of farm organizations, the province made a blanket exemption this year for commercial fertilizers. Farmers hoping to apply manure can get an exemption, too, but they need to apply on a case-by-case basis.
Some question the sanity of calendar-based nutrient regulations, as the seasons are in a constant state of flux. A few more seasons like this one, which had the department's phone ringing off the hook, might result in a more flexible rule.
If you ask history, March is also a non-starter for savvy seeding. In seasons past, getting onto the fields before early May was rarely an option. In fact, at the same time last year, fields were still snow-covered and the province was bracing for floods.
While it is well-known early seeding is associated with higher yields for most crops, there is also higher risk of crop damage due to frost or diseases caused by cold soils.
Seed is no longer something farmers draw out of one of last year's bins and dump into their seeder. With most of the crops now grown in Manitoba, new seed must be purchased from a dealer every year. It's not cheap -- provincial crop production estimates for 2012 place seed costs in the range of $12 per acre for a cereal crop such as rye to more than $75 per acre for canola.
And those seed supplies are tightly managed. If frost wipes out the newly emerged plants, farmers are not only faced with the cost of replacing it, assuming there is time, but there are no guarantees there will be any left in the warehouses.
But what about looking into the crystal ball to ask the future? With all this talk about climate change, could it be spring is arriving sooner and summer will stay longer?
Canadian researchers examining various models under a Climate Change Action Fund project concluded that's a distinct possibility. Their report, Assessment of Climate Change and Impacts on Soil Moisture and Drought on the Prairies, said that in Manitoba, for example, the average seeding date could move forward by 19 to 24 days. Harvest dates could be more than a month earlier, due to the earlier seeding and anticipated boost in heat.
For most of us, whether this spring is an aberration or a trend is the stuff of backyard debates over barbecuing steaks. Farmers have much more at stake.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org