Dry soil conditions and below-average snow packs in parts of Red Deer County and across the province could mean a late start to spring grazing and an increased risk of winterkill on hay and pasture stands for area livestock producers, cautions a provincial forage specialist.
“Producers should plan for delayed growth on their hay and pasture lands this spring and be prepared to keep their herds on winter feed supplies for at least a week longer than usual – possibly longer, depending on when we get some moisture,” says Grant Lastiwka, a forage and grazing specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD). “The dry conditions really snuck up on us after such a wet start to the growing season last year. It’s surprising how quickly things turned around.”
Soil moisture and snow packs are well below normal across large pockets of central, eastern and northern Alberta, with soil moisture ranging from an estimated one-in-six to one-in-50-year lows in many areas. In Red Deer County, soil moisture is generally moderately low to near normal ranging to one-in-six-year lows in the south and southeast, according to provincial soil moisture maps at www.agric.gov.ab.ca/acis.
The risk posed by dry soils could quickly lessen or turn around completely with some very early rain or wet snow once the ground starts to thaw in late March or April, said Lastiwka, further explaining hay and pasture stands typically begin growing in mid-to-late April.
But with conditions currently so dry, and the Feb. 29th deadline to insure hay and pasture in Alberta just next week, “Farmers need to be aware of these issues now so they can assess soil moisture on their own farms and decide how they want to manage that risk,” he said. “Grazing is half the cost of conventional feed systems. As producers begin rebuilding their cow herds after years of poor prices, protecting their lowest cost feed source is an important consideration.”
Ralph Wright, a provincial soil moisture specialist with ARD, says an extremely dry fall is largely to blame for the current conditions. “Alberta had a wet June and July, but thirsty crops and forage stands used up all that water. By early September, our soil moisture was depleted. And from August to mid-November the rains basically stopped falling in many parts of Alberta – preventing the soils from getting a fall moisture recharge for next year’s crops before the ground froze.”
With no moisture in the soil, many hay and pasture stands stopped growing in August and became dormant much earlier than usual – forcing them to survive longer on their winter energy reserves, said Lastiwka.
“As those energy reserves become depleted over the winter, the plants will be slower to start growing this spring. They’re also more vulnerable to winterkill – which could be a real issue this year, especially on older hay stands,” he added, pointing to the lack of snow cover and unseasonably warm temperatures this winter, which were followed by a frigid blast of Arctic air in January.
Larry Robinson runs a mixed farming operation further south of Red Deer near Innisfail. He says he tries not to worry too much about whether he’ll get enough spring rain to kick-start growth on his hay and pasture each year. “But it was awful dry around here in the fall. We don’t have a lot of moisture going into the spring.”
The dry fall weather gave him time to harvest a good hay crop and get some work done around the farm. But with 200 cows and up to 500 yearlings grazing his land each year, Robinson says he can’t afford to buy extra feed if his pasture and hay fields don’t get enough rain, so he insures them. “In the last 10 years, the dry and wet years seem to be a bit more extreme. We can’t always count on the rain.”
In 2011, more than $6 million was paid on hay and pasture insurance claims across Alberta mainly due to lack of moisture, said John Kresowaty, Perennial Insurance coordinator with Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC).
Across central and southern Alberta, more than $3 million was paid to producers who experienced limited rainfall late in the season and production losses on hay. Claims have also been triggered in southern Alberta by accidental pasture fires this winter due to dry conditions, high winds, and a lack of snow, said Kresowaty. He explains pasture insurance includes spot loss coverage for accidental fires and fires caused by lightning. Across northern Alberta and the Peace region, more than $3 million was paid after an extremely dry, cool spring delayed hay and pasture growth.
With conditions so dry across the province this year, Kresowaty expects participation in Perennial Insurance will increase.
“We often see that when soil moisture is dry,” he said, explaining insurance subscriptions increased across the Peace region due to drought conditions over the past few years. While most producers in the program insure every year, there are some who opt in and out depending on what the weather looks like in February and sometimes find themselves disappointed by Mother Nature, he said.
“Many sign up after a disaster has already happened and miss out on that coverage, or they opt out too soon and find themselves unprotected at the wrong time.” He added AFSC encourages producers to stay in the program every year with premium discounts of up to 20% for continuous participation and an experience discount of up to 38% for hay producers with a favourable claims history.
“It’s very difficult to predict what the growing season will be like in the spring based on current conditions,” said Wright. He points out that on average, February is the driest month in Alberta but by April, “Anything is possible when it comes to the weather. Alberta is a land of extremes with lots of sudden swings from prolonged dry periods to wet conditions. All we can do is wait and see.”
New to Perennial Insurance this year is the addition of 11 new weather stations to the provincial network, primarily in the special areas of eastern Alberta, bringing the total to 207 stations.
“We review the network yearly, and when feasible recommend additional weather stations to limit the distance from producers’ land bases,” said Kresowaty, explaining moisture deficiency coverage for hay and pasture is based on precipitation at weather stations.
For more details producers can contact their local AFSC office or phone the AFSC Call Centre at 1-877-899-2372 before the Feb. 29th deadline.