More drought mitigation measures

‘Mother Nature Always bats last.’

By Taryn Milton

Farmers in some areas of Western Canada experienced dry conditions in 2020, and in the spring of 2021, the southern parts of both Manitoba and Saskatchewan were very dry.

“Dry conditions started last fall for a large portion of the Prairies and have lasted right through the winter,” says Trevor Hadwen. In mid-March, “we had the most severe drought in the Prairie region listed for Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan, and the southern regions of both those provinces are the driest in the Prairie region.”

Winter field in the prairies at sunrise
    mysticenergy/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Hadwen is an agroclimate specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and is based in Regina. He also is part of the team that runs the AAFC Canadian drought-watch maps.

While farmers have experience with drier conditions, in Western Canada, many farmers have become accustomed to dealing with wetter conditions over the last several years.

“We’ve just come through a fairly wet cycle for the last five to six years, up until last year, and adapted to dealing with excess moisture,” Hadwen tells Better Farming.

Now that the Prairies are facing a dry cycle, Better Farming talks to experts and farmers about how they’re adapting to the conditions. We talk to researchers on work being done on crops and soil to help deal with drier conditions and we learn more about the 89-year drought cycle.

2021 growing year

In March of this year, many farmers in Western Canada experienced dry conditions, including Bill Gehl. He is a grain farmer in the Tregarva District, north of Regina.

“We’re not really sure what happened to the snow because we had zero runoff here, even though we had a bigger snowpack than the previous year,” he tells Better Farming. “I would say we are certainly drier than normal at this point.”

Gehl farms cereals, oilseeds and pulses with his wife Joanne, his brother Robert and sister-in-law Bernie.

close up of over wintered crops
    This photo taken March 21 shows a green centre in some overwintered crops in the USask project. - Ken Greer photo

In March, even though it was dry, Gehl wasn’t overly worried about the conditions.

“At this time of year for grain farmers, in some ways it’s kind of nice not having to drive around sloughs and worry about getting stuck in wet spots,” he says.

While no crop is lost in March, if farmers are experiencing dry conditions, they could start investigating some options to help in these conditions, says Dane Froese, a grain farmer near Winkler, Man. He is also an industry development specialist, oilseeds, at Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development.

“Starting with the dry spring, looking at your fertility management and your crop selections are going to be important,” he tells Better Farming. “Certain crops have a higher water budget than others. For instance, longer-season crops like soybeans, corn and sunflowers require more rain and they do require rain later into the season, particularly in August, to achieve full yield potential.

“A shorter-season crop or an earlier-maturing crop typically has a lower water demand. So those are your spring cereals, and canola to a certain extent. Winter cereals, for example, will also require a lot less water just due to how early they start growing season, and how much more early moisture they can take rather than having to wait for the rains in the middle of summer,” says Froese.

If your crop choices are already made for this year, a good way to take advantage of the moisture you do have is to look at your fertilizer management, says Froese.

“Ideally, farmers would have put down fertilizer back in the fall when the fertilizer commodity price was a lot lower and they were able to work that into the soil and not disturb soil and risk drying out. Now, if that fertilizer still needs to go down, and their machine isn’t capable of putting it all in a single pass, that could require separate passes or broadcasting and then harrowing it in or vertical tillage to incorporate, and all of those additional passes burn more diesel fuel and dry out the soil surface and the topsoil further. So, that really limits the amount of water available to begin germination of seed and get that crop off to a strong start,” he explains.

A dry cycle

Western Canada is in a dry cycle right now, says Hadwen.

“We’re currently into a fairly dry cycle and there should be a little bit of concern in the farm community for moisture and water supplies. With the early spring and the lack of snow throughout much of the region, there wasn’t a whole lot of runoff this year,” he says.

However, dry cycles aren’t uncommon.

“Drought is a cyclical thing. It’s part of the normal climate cycle. Within the Prairie region, we go through wet periods and dry periods. Farmers have adapted to that and continue to adapt to new challenges,” Hadwen says.

One cycle that some farmers may not be familiar with is the 89-year drought cycle.

“The 89-year drought cycle is sort of an interesting thing,” says Dr. Elwynn Taylor. “The climate seems to repeat itself on this 89-year cycle.”

Taylor is a retired professor of climatology at Iowa State University.

His work with the 89-year drought cycle specifically looked at tree rings. If you cut a tree down, you could see where some years were better than others and the worst years were roughly 89 years apart, says Taylor.

“1846-47 was the coldest, wettest winter and hottest, driest summer. Then we go another 89 years … up to 1934, ’35, ’36, which are the years that included the famous Dust Bowl of the central United States. Then people say, ‘Well, when will it happen again?’ And we look at that, and would say 2024-25,” he tells Better Farming.

While Taylor’s work focused on the United States, the drought cycle he researched could make its way up to Western Canada during the next cycle.

Many farmers have changed their practices since the Dust Bowl years, which has helped the soil.

“People took very seriously the Dust Bowl years. They said, ‘We don’t want this to ever happen again,’ and they’ve stopped a lot of fall tillage,” says Taylor.

Farmers also have a more common practice of leaving stubble out in the field to help reduce topsoil loss, says Taylor.

Since the next drought cycle is on the horizon, it’s probably a good time for farmers to make smart financial decisions, says Taylor.

“It’s not a good time to be on the edge financially,” he says. “The chances of having a bad year are high between now and 2026, or 2027. So, this isn’t the time to be in barely manageable debt.”

Research focused on drought

Since Western Canada is a semi-arid environment, a lot of research done in agricultural sciences focuses on drought and crops, says Dr. Maryse Bourgault. She is an assistant professor and the Western Grains Research Foundation chair in integrated agronomy at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

“Western Canadian farmers are not new to the idea of drought and variable rainfall; that’s the environment we live in,” she tells Better Farming.

Researchers usually focus on two areas when it comes to drought and crops: genetics and agronomy, says Bourgault.

panoramic view of prairie farm field
    Reinhard/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

The genetics side looks at crops that can withstand dry or drought conditions and still have consistent performance. The agronomy side looks at good management of the crops and fields.

Bourgault and her colleagues at USask are working on two projects that focus on these areas. The first one centres on bringing livestock onto the fields.

“The animals are converting some of that biomass into organic matter that’s a little bit harder to decompose, and that increases that soil organic matter. It still takes a lot of time, but there’s some research that suggests we need that to increase that health, and the whole movement of regenerative agriculture has a lot of that included in it, having livestock back into farming,” Bourgault explains.

The project looks at a gradient of livestock integration and the researchers plan to integrate annual and perennial forages as well.

“How intense do we have to have cows in order for us to start seeing improvement in soil organic matter? We’re quite excited about that research, but there are also some indications in the literature that suggest that in our environment, we might actually need a perennial phase of pasture for us to be able to improve soil health.

“If that’s the case, then it’s going to take major changes in how things are done. So, we’re hoping that that’s not the case, that we might be able to have smaller integrations in for people to potentially borrow cattle from their neighbours without having to have both enterprises on their farm,” says Bourgault.

Another project Bourgault is involved in is related to winter broad-leaf crops.

“The idea with winter crops is that we’re trying to avoid those August very dry and very high temperatures. So, we’re trying to get the crop to mature a little bit earlier, but also to take advantage of all of that moisture that’s present in the spring,” she explains.

The project involves winter peas, lentils and camelina. They also intercrop to see if that practice provides benefits.

“We also have this one plot of winter wheat in there as well to make sure that we have a winter crop to compare it to, but we’ll also compare those with spring-planted peas, lentils and camelina, to see what kind of differences we might get in performance,” says Bourgault.

This project started last fall, and in mid-March the crop had started to green up in the middle, which is a good sign.

Other research on crops and drought is happening at AAFC, says Dr. Raju Soolanayakanahally and Dr. Jatinder Sangha who are both AAFC research scientists in Saskatchewan.

The plant physiology team at AAFC is currently doing research on the impact of drought and heat on canola and wheat. One project examines drought and heat during flowering on canola yield. Another explores adapting wheat to arid environments. And the last one examines physiological breeding to enhance crop resilience in wheat.

“The overarching goals of these projects is to identify donor parents for breeders to include in the breeding program to attain greater yield stability across diverse environments,” says a report prepared by Soolanayakanahally and Sangha.

close up of crops in rows
    Akchamczuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“To understand the crop stress resilience, the team is utilizing novel phenotyping tools (indoors and outdoors). In doing so, the researchers are working with an international consortium, the Alliance for Wheat Adaptation to Heat and Drought, addressing scientific gaps and to leverage synergies that will make it possible to develop heat- and drought-resilient new wheat varieties,” the report says.

Plans for future

While crops are already in the ground for this year’s growing season, there are some practices farmers can follow in future years to help in dry conditions.

“Leaving crop stubble higher in fall is going to be a big one. Allowing that residue to remain standing to catch available snow and keep the ground covered is going to become important when we have these warm, dry springs,” says Froese.

While zero till or minimum till are common practices in some areas of Western Canada, they are not common everywhere. But they may have to become the standard, says Froese.

Putting in a crop such as winter wheat could also be an option.

“Those crops (can) take advantage of moisture in the ground at (springtime to) get some growth and then after the snow melts, have growth occurring three to four weeks earlier than the spring-seeded crops the following season. So, they take advantage of that early-season moisture and are less reliant on those rainstorms coming in June and July when the other crops start getting really thirsty,” Froese tells Better Farming.

Froese also encourages farmers to have backup plans throughout the current growing season if things aren’t going as planned.

“It’s nice to have the luxury of sitting down and developing scenarios of what could happen before the season starts because as the season progresses … farmers can easily be swayed or easily forget what they planned out. I’m guilty of this as well. Have a written plan or at least have a thought-out process of what to do if (drought) occurs. That makes your decision-making a lot easier and results in a lot less second-guessing and doubling back and checking in on the economics,” he says.

In the end, farmers start out each year with what Mother Nature gives them and they stay positive, says Gehl.

“This is dryland farming and we need timely rains. It’s just that simple. We’re always reliant on Mother Nature and Mother Nature always bats last,” he says. “It’s not good for your peace of mind to be negative all the time. It’s good to be positive and optimistic about the future.” BF

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