Prairie drought reaches tipping point

precipitation on prairies

MarketsFarm — The Prairie provinces have been under the influence of a large ridge of high pressure for a number of weeks, which has produced prolonged dryness with little precipitation.

That high pressure system has pushed low-pressure, precipitation-carrying systems to the south, where the U.S. Midwest has already received significant rain.

Environment Canada estimated the Prairies to be in a deficit of about 200 millimetres of precipitation — a significant percentage of annual moisture.

The livestock industry in central Saskatchewan is feeling the biggest pinch, as both pastureland and haylands are suffering after one of the driest springs on record.

Because pastures haven’t had enough moisture to green up, they are hardly supportive of cattle herds. Similarly, haylands are stressed to the point where they are barely producing anything worth cutting, some livestock farmers are turning their herds out to graze on hayland.

“The long-term impact of that is that we’re probably not going to have a whole lot of feed come fall, so producers will reduce their herd sizes or buy feed from other places that actually had some production,” said Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Regina.

Ideally, the western-moving jet stream would push the high-pressure system past the Prairies, allowing a low-pressure system to bring rain. But a strong low-pressure system could also bring thunderstorms with lightning and high wind, which could “cause quite a bit of havoc,” according to Natalie Hasell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada in Winnipeg.

Hadwen said that the amount of rain required to turn the growing season around paled in comparison to the importance of the timing of the rain. Though a significant amount of rain is needed to bring the soil moisture profile back to normal levels, a rainy day every week or 10 days throughout the growing season would also be required to sustain growth levels.

“If we don’t get rain for more than a two-week period throughout the growing season, some areas just don’t have the soil moisture reserves to carry plants through that. We’ll end up having heat stress and wilting at that point.”

However, Hasell believes this sort of dry spell is not uncharacteristic for the region.

“The precipitation forecast in the Prairies is almost always quite poor, so this doesn’t come as a surprise,” she said.

High pressure systems tend to move slowly, sometimes dissipating only to re-form over the same location.

“We’ve seen this repeatedly over the last while,” she said.

— Marlo Glass writes for MarketsFarm, a Glacier FarmMedia division specializing in grain and commodity market analysis and reporting.

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