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Agriculture sector seared by drought in 2021

Posted on January 6, 2022 by Vauxhall Advance

By Trevor Busch
Vauxhall Advance

It was a tale of dry conditions and drought throughout much of southern Alberta in 2021, and many agricultural producers watched prospects for a successful season wilt along with their crops. Even irrigation farmers felt the burn of the sun’s rays a little too harshly in some regions, which impacted crop yields.

“I guess the big story is the drought that happened, and its widespread effect across southern Alberta and other parts of the province,” said Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. “So it’s been quite an experience for a lot of producers, especially farm yields due to drought. What’s happened, even in the irrigation areas while we had good yields with some crops, but some hurt in other crops. But not as big an issue as the dryland farmer.”

Jacobson, who farms near Enchant, says some crops fared better in regions to the north, but southern Alberta was a virtual disaster for producers.

“I would classify that as maybe from Calgary south, because as you went farther north of Calgary the crop conditions varied dramatically between areas up there. They were able to catch some moisture in some areas, and then other areas weren’t good at all on dryland. Around that Innisfail area, they had a lot better crops than ours. In the southern region, the crops went from non-existent to 14-15 bushels per acre, depending on practices, whether it’s some summer fallow. One of my neighbours was talking, he did some chem fallow – he’s been practicing that on a certain piece of land – and he said he got 14-15 bushels per acre, and the rest of his land where he’s continuous cropping was non-existent.”

Out of the drought has arisen the problem of marketing, pre-pricing products and signing contracts, which Jacobson says has become a big issue.

“Early they were pretty optimistic, the prices were decent and they did price some product, and now they don’t have that product to deliver. So they’ve been running at the trouble of supplying or buying their contracts out, and there’s quite an issue basically over some of the administration fees and interest charges that have been charged by some of the grain companies. So that’s a big issue for people.”

There are people with opinions on both sides of the issue right now in Alberta’s farming community, according to Jacobson.

“There’s different sentiments around that among the farming community. If a person was very aggressive and locked up 90 per cent of what they thought was their average production, some people don’t have very much sympathy for them. It’s sort of that dynamic, other years locking up a lot of your production before harvest, basically what is the financial benefit to you? Those people would brag about how good they did on the marketing end of it, but all the sudden now they’re going ‘woe is me’. There’s different sentiments on that end of it. With the irrigation crops, some guys were doing the aggressive marketing with more assurance of producing the yield – and they did – but some people locked in quite a bit of their crops at a lot lower prices that they could have achieved by waiting. It’s a mixed bag and mixed feelings for everybody.”

While Jacobson remains optimistic about the upcoming growing season, current moisture levels in southern Alberta on the heels of a drought are a cause for concern.

“The big thing was the lack of production, and what we’re thinking the new year is going to bring. We’ve gone into the fall and winter here with really a lack of moisture, or reserve moisture in the soil, and we still haven’t seen a lot of snow or rainfall come at this point in time. We’re still optimistic and it’s too early to panic, but people are definitely thinking this has the potential to be another dry year coming up.”

Irrigation storage levels in reservoirs in the region are on the radar of some producers, while Jacobson argues the time has come to start considering the impact of climate change on their long-term operations.

“There is some concern. Maybe not the irrigation districts themselves, they draw the reservoirs down in anticipation of spring runoff. They’re saying don’t worry about it right now at this point in time, we’re following our plan this is what we’ve done – but it all depends on snowfall, and especially rainfall in the spring, and what’s going to happen. On a personal level, to start thinking what’s climate change is going to mean to that rainfall, and how that moisture is going to be delivered in the spring and over the next summer. I think that’s an issue that people need to start thinking about.”

While the prospect of irrigation expansion probably excites many farmers in southern Alberta, Jacobson sounded a word of caution that we need to take a well-considered and careful approach.

“The expansion of our irrigation districts, including new acres, we want that irrigation heritage and potential for a lot people, too. There are some thoughts now on saying we maybe need to be careful on how much we expand these districts because of the supply of water and what that is going to mean to us. Are you going to start limiting the people that do have irrigation at this time to so many inches, and we’ve seen some of those things happen this year. What is there going to be for next year if we don’t get the moisture that we expect, or the runoff we expect?”

For cattle producers, the drought in 2021 has had a two-fold effect – lack of forage throughout the growing season, and lack of hay as well as high prices in the fall and winter.

“It’s a big concern,” said Jacobson.

“Through AFA and the CFA, we started that Hay West program to deliver some hay from Eastern Canada and the Atlantic provinces into the west. That program is running, and there is basically an abundance of hay and forage in Eastern Canada. We’re working as hard as we can to gain access and move some that into Western Canada. But we know it’s not going to be enough for everybody, you can’t supply the amount that’s really going to be wanted. So people are being very innovative on how they’re feeding their cattle. But I fully expect the cow-calf herd to probably shrink between 20 – 30 per cent this year.”

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