Late frost and blizzard put chill on seeded fields

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This year could go down in Prairie folklore as the year farmers seeded and seeded -- and then seeded some more.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/06/2015 (2730 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This year could go down in Prairie folklore as the year farmers seeded and seeded — and then seeded some more.

Seed suppliers were scrambling last week to pump more seed through the distribution pipeline as producers headed back to the field in the wake of the May 30 frost. It is estimated that overnight cold snap wiped out between 800,000 and a million acres of newly emerging crop — mostly canola.

While some reseeding takes place every spring, it’s rare for it to occur over such a wide area and so late in the seeding season.

Other crops that suffered damage are expected to recover. However, farmers have had to delay herbicide applications for fear of damaging their stressed crops even more, which gives the weeds the upper hand.

Based on canola seed costs of around $52 per acre, that freakish late-May thermometer dip cost farmers, crop insurance and the seed industry around $50 million — at least. There is the cost of labour, equipment and fuel to factor in, too. There were also reports it was some farmers’ third trip to the same fields this spring.

In short, May was an ugly month for trying to get crops established.

Many crops were looking ragged after trying to make their way through drought-like conditions, wind and blowing soil that sheared newly emerged plants off at the surface. Then there was an early frost, the May long weekend blizzard –complete with pelting ice, snow and pounding rains — and after that, cooler-than-normal temperatures.

Seed planted early was slow to germinate in those cold soils, which offered an open invitation to bugs and bacteria that feast on it when it is most vulnerable.

Most seed is treated with insecticides designed to keep the voracious flea beetles at bay until the crop is able to grow faster than they can eat. But those treatments typically start to wear off in about three weeks. In a year such as this, that was too soon. Reports of flea beetle damage began to rise about mid-May.

Then came the May 30 frost. The provincial crop report says some parts of southwestern Manitoba dipped to -10 C overnight, although for most areas, it was in the -2 to -4 C range.

For some growers, the frost damage was a relief because it made the difficult decision of whether to reseed much easier. When crop damage occurs late in the spring, producers are often advised to leave what’s there intact and nurse it through to harvest, rather than rip it up and start over.

Late seeding is associated with lower yields and a higher risk of frost damage before it reaches maturity in the fall. Their ability to insure the crop starts to drop for canola in mid-June and disappears by June 20.

While farmers are taught to strive for a certain number of plants per square foot, it is also true canola plants compensate for thinner stands by branching out more. So sometimes the end result in yield isn’t as bad as it first seems — depending on the success of weed, disease and insect-control efforts through the growing season.

But the state of many fields after May 30 left little doubt. The fledgling plants that had struggled so hard to reach the surface were beyond redemption.

At least farmers aren’t bearing the full financial brunt. Crop insurance offers a reseeding benefit that averages about $65 per acre and some of the major seed suppliers offer rebates worth up to two-thirds of the retail cost of seed purchased for reseeding.

With warmer soils, chances are their new crops will be out of the ground within days. It’s a late start, but it might be better.

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

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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