Dryland canola crops struggle in hot and dry southern Alberta conditions

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The popular saying in southern Alberta "wait five minutes and the weather will change" is pretty accurate for the forecast this year. The lack of moisture and extreme heat is taking a toll on some canola crops. Quinn Campbell reports – Jul 24, 2018

Canola crops in southern Alberta are struggling amid less than ideal conditions that have stunted growth.

It’s a tough sight for producers like John McKee, who stood in a dry land canola field with plants just below his waist, saying they should be chest high.

“There isn’t sufficient moisture in the ground for the plant to finish the seed, so it ends up just being a shell,” he added.

READ MORE: Lethbridge, other areas of southern Alberta under heat warning

McKee and his family’s farm is located south of Lethbridge in an area that, according to Environment Canada, has received about half its average precipitation for a growing season.
The lack of moisture has taken a toll on McKee’s bottom line.

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“We have the expenses for a big crop, a 50 bushel canola crop, and we are going to have substantially less than that this year, and this is the second year in a row, so we are pretty upset about the weather,” said McKee.

“It is really frustrating to see, especially when it looks so good early on and you spend so much time and effort during seeding, working 80 hour work weeks, and then to see it turn out like this,” added Joseph McKee, John’s son. “It’s pretty frustrating to see all your efforts go so south.”

Autumn Barnes, an agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada, said that while some crops look good, it’s a completely different story just a short distance away.

“[In] some areas, growers have seen timely rains, but those rains have been really patchy and often on one side of the road,” Barnes said. “A grower will get rain, and on the other side of the road they get nothing, or a tenth of that, so there is a lot of patchy moisture situations.”

She added areas around Lethbridge, Enchant and Carmangay are particularly dry. Some irrigated crops are doing well along with some in central and northern Alberta, but the southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are seeing drought-like conditions, which is affecting canola.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan farmers seed more wheat, less canola in 2018

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But its not just the lack of rain causing problems.

“When you’re seeing these really elevated temperatures when the canola is flowering, the flowers basically say ‘we cant do this anymore’ and they abort pods,” Barnes noted.

Canola prefers 30C weather temperatures or cooler, while the Lethbridge area has had roughly a dozen days of about 30C temperatures — leaving both the crops and the farmers who tend to them feeling a bit burned.

“Our paycheque comes once a year, not every two weeks,” said McKee, “so what happens now is really going to impact us this winter.”

Barnes said it’s almost too late for any rain to make a difference in the crop yield.

She added that when canola seed was cheaper to purchase, growers could afford to put more seed in the ground and have a lot of plants growing. With the lack of moisture, though, less could mean more. “If conditions look as dry next year, maybe growers could consider targeting closer to six plants per square foot instead of seven to 10, which is something we used to recommend,” Barnes said.

Barnes added there are roughly 22 million acres of canola in Canada.

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