Parts of Saskatchewan currently under a severe drought will need continuous light rain over several days to replenish the parched soil, according to agricultural experts.
Southern Saskatchewan and some eastern regions of the province were either short or extremely short on moisture entering freeze-up, Saskatchewan Agriculture reported last fall.
The lack of snowpack over the winter did little to change those conditions, says Trevor Hadwen, an agricultural specialist with the Canadian Drought Monitor (CDM).
“We had a very dry fall period following a fairly normal year. We didn’t have a whole lot of drought situation last year,” Hadwen said.
“But, as we moved into the fall, we dried out and the winter snowfall (was) well below normal, leading to extremely low runoff.”
That’s a big change from 2019, when the ground was saturated, says Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.
“The fall of 2019, we were pretty well at saturation point, but fall through last spring, it got dry and stayed dry,” said Lewis, who farms south of Regina.
He said the snowfall some regions received last week helps, but it is not enough.
“There is really no major system that gave a good general rain right across it.”
Lewis and Hadwen both say upwards of 100 millimetres — or five inches — of rain is needed to recharge the soil.
“The challenge is that if we got five inches of rain, most of that rainfall would end up in the streams and runoff,” Hadwen said.
“What we really need is some continuous light rain for multiple days to really recharge some of that soil moisture.”
That includes the subsoil, which Lewis said is depleted from the 2020 growing season.
“Crops can get pretty deep and they’ll go find the moisture. This year, there’s not the moisture there for the roots to find,” he said.
“So, we’re going to need good general rainfall throughout the growing season this year to grow a good crop.”
That isn’t likely to happen any time soon, according to Global News meteorologist Peter Quinlan.
“Meteorological spring is likely to trend drier than normal for most areas in southern and central Saskatchewan,” Quinlan said.
“Long-range precipitation forecasting is very tricky, but current models are indicating that the drier than normal trend will continue into the month of May.”
A bigger concern for Hadwen is the water supply. He said dugouts and sloughs are typically filled during the spring runoff, which didn’t happen this year.
This has led producers to start pumping sloughs and hauling water already, which Hadwen said is early in the season for them to be doing that.
“Typically, we see a little bit of runoff in the spring that adds to dugouts and some of the on-farm water storage and we don’t have that this year,” he said.
“We got very little runoff and very little cycling into the dugout. So producers are concerned about water supply and water quality already this spring.”
Scott Owens said the low spring runoff could have an impact on his operations.
Owens, who farms near Maidstone, said there was very little runoff despite the November snow event in the region.
“A lot of the potholes and sloughs that would normally be full this time of year have already dried up,” he said.
“There was lots of room in the soil for the moisture to soak in, which was good. It all soaked in, but the runoff was low this year.”
Owen’s region is classified by the CDM as being in a moderate drought, a situation Hadwen said could change.
“Some of the southwest and west-central is also very dry, not quite as urgent as an issue and not as extreme and not as long-standing (as the south),” he said.
“But again, without the spring moisture that we typically get, those areas are starting to dry up very quickly.”
Owens said the current conditions in his region aren’t a concern — yet.
“In four weeks’ time, if we haven’t seen any moisture and experienced a lot of heat and wind, it could take a turn for the worst.”
Wind and early spring
Hadwen said two other factors contributed to the current drought situation — wind and an early spring.
Moisture was lost through sublimation of the snow and evaporation in general, he said.
“With the windy spring conditions that we’ve had, we lost a lot of moisture,” he explained.
“We had an early spring and exposing the soil to the evaporative stress very early on in the spring has led to more water loss out of that soil.”
Spring seeding gets underway shortly, but the lack of moisture could have an impact on farmers.
“May 1 is traditionally a starting point for a lot of producers, so I think we’ll see seeding get underway,” Lewis said.
“If it stays dry and windy, we may see some of the small-seeded crops, like canola for instance, that maybe producers will hold back (on) until we do see some moisture.”
Hadwen said if conditions don’t change soon, producers will then have to rely on timely rainfall throughout the growing season.
“We’re going to have to rely on those steady rainfalls, and that puts our agricultural crops at risk a little bit because they don’t have that reserve down in the soil to really pull from when we get some dry periods,” he said.
“What we really need is some continuous light rain for multiple days to really recharge some of that soil moisture.
“But at this point, I don’t see a whole lot of options in terms of significant recharge for that 100-millimetre deficit.”
Lewis, however, remains optimistic heading into seeding.
“Hope springs eternal, so we’ll be looking forward to getting some co-operation out of Mother Nature,” he said.
“And that’s one thing with the drought, one good rain can really make a difference.”