Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Farmers fretting over Manitoba's exceedingly late, cold spring

Cattle producers' anxiety rising over hay shortage

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Organizers of the annual Crocus Festival in Arden aren't the only ones fretting about Manitoba's exceedingly late, cold spring.

The annual festival, which features a photography contest of the province's official flower and one of the first signs of spring, was forced to extend the deadline for entries from Friday to April 30 because the snow has been too deep for even for those perky little flowers to fight their way through. Spring thaw or not, the festival is going ahead as planned May 4.

Arden's frustration pales in comparison to anxious farmers worried about getting this year's crop in the ground.

With fields only now just emerging from beneath their blanket of snow and the prospect of spring flooding still looming, there is already speculation about unseeded acres.

It's a serious concern, but the conversations around it turn into a quirky history lesson as people draw comparisons to the past crop seasons through the context of other notable events; it was the year someone was born, or that was the year the barn burned down or the family took an extended summer holiday after five inches of rain drowned out the fledgling crop.

Will it be worse than 1979 -- when the river ice didn't clear until April 25 and there was a big flood? Farmers seeded in June that year. Or 1962, when Manitoba Agriculture records show seeding became general on June 5? Or 2011, when desperate farmers were hurling canola seed out of airplanes?

One thing we do know for sure is this year isn't going to be like the last one, when seeding equipment was already starting to roll toward the end of March. In fact, the hotly contested question this time last year was -- how early is too early?

For most crops, every day seeding extends past mid-May is associated with a one to two per cent per day drop in yields and a higher risk of suffering damaging frosts in the fall.

But as the old-timers say, we've never written off a crop in April yet. Despite those difficult past springs, more often than not, farmers still pulled off a decent crop by early September. There is still plenty of time if the weather co-operates, the fields dry out and the soil warms up. Oh, and if it doesn't rain too much.

The immediate crisis is in the province's cattle sector. Hay supplies were barely adequate going into the winter. The late spring has left herds running short and pastures still snow-covered. Add to that the potential of flooding and anxiety levels in the cattle community are rising faster than the thermometer.

"There is a shortage of hay in Manitoba. This stretches throughout the entire province, but it is certainly felt most critically in the southeast areas that were hit by drought conditions last year, as well as near the lakes that experienced reduced yield and acreage due to the 2011 flood," says a bulletin put out by Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives and Manitoba Beef Producers.

Newborn calves depend on well-nourished cows, so producers are being advised to seek out professional advice before substituting alternatives such as molasses, or hemp screenings, pea flour, and oat hulls into their herd rations.

Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Cam Dahl said the situation is worst for producers still waiting for compensation promised by the federal and provincial governments in the wake of the 2011 flood that left pastures and hay lands unproductive in 2012.

"Instead, they appear to be at a stalemate, blaming each other for the lack of progress," Dahl said in a letter to farm newspapers. "(Producers) were promised compensation and they deserve compensation. It is not right that producers are being forced to contemplate liquidating their herds because the required compensation has not been forthcoming."

All in all, it's turning into a pretty typical year in Prairie farming -- a bunch of 'ifs,' some definite 'maybes' and a whole lot of waiting for things farmers can't control.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 0

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