Wet conditions impacting Western Canada

by Drew Lerner
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Western Canada weather map
30-day percent of average precipitation in Western Canada. March 26, 2017-April 24, 2017.
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Tremendous South America crops and a world glut of wheat have kept commodity futures trade depressed recently, but there are several trouble spots to keep an eye on from a weather standpoint. Western Canada’s Prairies are in the midst of an unusual situation with millions of acres of unharvested 2016 crops still in the fields while temperatures are cool and frequent precipitation impacts the region. Canada’s growing season is already short, but when you add harvesting last year’s crops to the farmers’ spring task list and the fact that wetter-than-usual conditions have persisted this spring it makes for an uneasy situation.

Last year was a wet year across Canada’s Prairies with most of the region reporting above average precipitation. The wet conditions culminated in a general disruption of autumn fieldwork and then came the winter snow. It is not unusual to have a few fields unharvested over the winter, but this year 1 million to 2 million acres are left to be harvested and that is a huge burden when the planting window in some years is already narrow.

Western Canada is still in a wetter biased pattern, although the winter season was actually drier than usual. Bitter cold air that often dominates Canada’s winter season usually traps moisture where it was in the autumn and locks it in place. The abundantly wet scenario that was present last autumn has resumed after weeks of drier-biased conditions during the peak of winter.

The greatest precipitation in the 30-day period ended April 24 was in northern and western Alberta where more than double the usual precipitation occurred. Some of the heavy precipitation extended into the far northwest part of Saskatchewan. In the meantime, precipitation was near to slightly below average recently across the remainder of the Prairies. A few pockets of above average precipitation were noted, one of which was in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta and another was in east-central Manitoba. Wet conditions recently in the southwestern Prairies have been welcome since that region overwintered with less than usual precipitation and some areas need the moisture to assure the best planting and emergence conditions in May and June.

Weather conditions over the coming 30 days will not be quite as intensively wet as in recent weeks, but the ground was already saturated last autumn and now significant runoff is under way following a freak blizzard and rain event that affected the western Prairies in early April.

Farmers in western and northern Alberta need two weeks of warm and drier-biased weather to gain access to all of the fields. Those areas that have unharvested 2016 crops will require up to two weeks of additional dry weather to allow aggressive harvest progress to take place. After that another two weeks of dry weather will be required to get the 2017 crops planted. That is six weeks of needed dry weather. The odds of dryness lasting more than a few days this spring are very low and that makes the potential for uninterrupted field access for six weeks an extremely unlikely event. Suddenly producers are realizing that it will likely be early June before some crops get planted and if rain and snow events continue to impact the region frequently over the next few weeks some crops may not get planted.

That is the doomsday outlook for the Prairies. Conditions would improve greatly by a period of dry and warm weather in the next few weeks and farmers will be preparing for a few all-night and all-day planting sessions when conditions get more favorable.

Not all is bad in the Prairies. Manitoba, which had tremendous snow depths a few weeks ago, has avoided a serious flood event thanks to a below-average precipitation bias. Most of the eastern Prairies are experiencing some improving tendencies, but it will be a while before fieldwork becomes aggressive, especially in areas that need it most.