What the Drought of 2021 Means for the Future

Feed stores, cattle breeding herds, drought forecasting technology and climate change mitigation all come into play when considering the long-term impact of severe weather this growing season.

By Jackie Clark

Throughout the summer of 2021, rain refused to fall on many regions of the Prairies and some parts of Ontario, leading to wildfires and drought conditions worse than many young farmers may have seen in their lifetime.

The current drought “is the worst in at least the last 20 years in terms of the severity and the extent of it,” Trevor Hadwen, Agroclimate specialist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), tells Better Farming.

Pockets of drought classified as D3 and D4 (extreme and exceptional drought) reached across Canada from B.C. to northwestern Ontario.

When compared to historical drought data, so far, the current situation is more widespread and severe than in 2001 and 2002, Hadwen explains. “We’re seeing weather conditions very similar to, if not worse than 1988. I don’t think we’re quite at the 1961 level.”

The drought of 1961 is often used as the benchmark for severe drought in Canada.

However, we don’t yet know how long this current drought will persist.

“This drought could end tomorrow. Or it may not end this decade,” says Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).

How much worse will it get?

When we consider “the longer-term ramifications of this kind of weather, we’re looking at reduced crop and pasture yields, crop failures,” Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, tells Better Farming. “The most definitive long-term impact is going to be as a result of the decimation of the cattle herds, and to some extent the breeding herd as well.”

Cattle and other livestock producers across the country are being impacted by feed scarcity.

“It looks like this winter we’re going to use up all the available feed we have. The stockpiled feed and the stuff that’s coming off the fields right now,” explains Lowe.

“It’s going to take a few years to rebuild those stocks; you don’t do that in just one year.”

Some farmers may struggle to source enough feed for their herds.

2 cows in dry field looking at camera
    Diane Kuhl/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“Some farmers and ranchers may need to cull their cows,” Lowe says. “If you cull 30 per cent of your breeding herd, it’s tough to replace that in one year. That’s more of a two-, three- or four year term, depending on cash availability.”

Robinson agrees.

“It’s definitely going to be a multi-year effort to restore these herds to pre-drought size, and some of the reductions may even be permanent,” she says.

The long-term impact on crops, pasture, and hay will depend on region, species, and severity of the drought.

“If you look at the fires in B.C., depending on how hot they burn, that grass might not come back for two or three years,” says Lowe. In the Prairies, “native pasture doesn’t need to be re-established, it’s kind of used to these drought cycles.”

Some hayfields may begin growing again with moisture while others may need to be replanted.

“If we get moisture over the next few months, then the next crop season should be fine. But if we don’t get moisture over the next few months, it could have consequences for next year’s crop production as well,” Robinson says.

Mitigation efforts

Federal and provincial governments have started to offer immediate aid in terms of cash and relief efforts.

CCA has also been working on coordinating feed logistics, including seeing if trains will be able to carry hay to western provinces from eastern parts of the country.

“We appreciate hay coming from the east but it’s not a whole lot,” says Lowe.

“To transport hay is extremely costly,” he adds. “So, we’re talking to feed companies that have pellet feed mills to find out if we can turn that hay into something that’s a denser feed, like a pellet, and transport it to the West.”

The full extent of support needed for farmers to recover from the drought is still an unknown.

“We have to wait until after the harvest season is over. Then we’ll know what we have and come up with a number on what we’ve lost, and what we need to survive,” says Lowe.

“The funding that’s been announced is great and it shows that all the governments are supporting agriculture and the cattle industry,” he explains. “And we’ve told the federal government it’s probably not going to be anywhere near enough. But we haven’t made that ask yet because we don’t know what we’ve got yet.”

New tools

Farmers and scientists are both skilled at creative problem-solving in the face of adversity.

“Crisis leads to innovation,” says Lowe. “Farmers and ranchers are pretty great at adapting. A cow doesn’t necessarily need a bale of hay to survive.”

With improved understanding of animal nutrition, experts can use alternative ingredients to balance rations that will meet the nutritional needs of livestock, he explains. “You’re going to see stuff being fed that I’ve never heard of before.”

Farmers in Western Canada “have adapted through innovation to be really efficient in their use of water,” Robinson adds.

Hadwen agrees. Even as droughts get more severe, their impact on agriculture may not be as dramatic.

“Since 1961 we’ve put in a lot of beneficial management practices that help farmers deal with and mitigate drought impacts,” he explains. “Things like water supplies, shelter belts, better moisture conservation through zero-till, all those types of things have really helped through large drought periods like what we’re going through now.”

AAFC scientists use climate data to map out weather patterns and their agricultural significance, as well as forecast the outlook for the future.

close up of cracked soil
    Gerry Proteau/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“Data are collected at a wide variety of sites across the country. We use Environment Canada’s data, some of the provincial data, and some private networks,” explains Hadwen. Experts “put that into a single map that tells the story in terms of precipitation, temperature, soil moisture, and a variety of other things like drought indices.”

The “Agriclimate Impact Reporter collects data from actual producers and agricultural industry representatives to highlight the impacts that people are dealing with based on the weather,” he adds. This data can be viewed in a map format that shows the weather’s impact on factors like feed availability, crop and hay quality, and surface soil moisture.

“When you’re looking at the weather, you can’t tell the impact. Just because things have been dry over a long period doesn’t necessarily mean that farmers are doing poorly. It depends on when the rain came,” Hadwen says. “The Agriclimate Impact Reporter provides us with the real key to how conditions are impacting the agricultural industry.”

That weather data and farmer information contributes to the Canadian Drought Monitor, which gives information regarding the impact of drought conditions on activities like agriculture, he adds.

Built on the Drought Monitor is the Canadian Drought Outlook, a forecasting tool.

“We basically take the Canadian Drought Monitor as our current conditions and we overlay the 30-day forecast on top of that, and then we run it through a model that we developed that looks at how we’ve assessed drought in past years based on similar forecasts and similar conditions, to come up with a best guess at how drought conditions will change over the 30-day period,” explains Hadwen.

The model estimates whether drought conditions will get worse, stay the same, or start to recover. Atmospheric changes can change the forecast, but experts have confidence in the 30-day outlook.

Hope for the future

As we look toward the future on our warming planet, it would be helpful for farmers to be able to accurately predict the weather much further in advance.

“As science improves, we’ve got better capabilities of predicting things like this, but there’s nothing there that I would bet on,” says Lowe.

A three-month outlook was AAFC’s original goal with their Drought Outlook tool.

“What we discovered very rapidly was that for Canada at most times, a three-month precipitation forecast is very poor,” says Hadwen. That fact has a lot to do with our unpredictable environment.

“We would love to be able to put out a longer prediction but at this point the science isn’t developed well enough to do that,” he explains. “We certainly don’t want to put out a drought forecast based on a precipitation forecast that has less than a 50 per cent chance of occurring. We don’t want to mislead the farm community and we don’t want to have people making decisions on products that we put out there that aren’t going to be reliable.”

As science improves, so will farmers’ ability to plan for the future, as well as to be active players in the battle to alleviate the impact of global climate change.

“In the midst of dealing with this horrific drought and all the conditions as a result of the drought, at the same time Canadian agriculture still embodies one of our greatest opportunities to mitigate climate change,” Robinson says.

However, it takes investment for farmers to enact climate change mitigation strategies on their farms.

“We are really looking to government to help increase the funding available to farmers to make those investments,” Robinson explains. “We need government to really be looking at agriculture as a team player in providing solutions and helping position producers make those investments. There’s no industry that lives and dies more by weather than agriculture, in my opinion, so there’s a captive audi-ence here.”

AAFC recently launched a call for proposals for funding under the $200 million On-Farm Climate Action Fund, aiming to support farmers to adopt practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve resiliency to climate change.

This investment is a step in the right direction, Robinson says.

The government needs to make those investments on farms, but also in schools, training institutions, and laboratories to ensure Canada has a competitive advantage and skilled professionals on the frontlines of fighting climate change with agricultural solutions, she adds.

“When we look at providing climate solutions for the future, we need to have the right people being trained right now to come up with those answers,” Robinson says.

The drought of 2021 is another reminder of the damage that can be done and what is at stake for farmers, as weather extremes become more frequent in the years to come if we continue along the current trajectory. BF

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