March 17, 2006

Drought Threatens Spring Planting in Canadian West

By Marcy Nicholson

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Parts of Canada's grain belt will need timely spring rains to stave off drought conditions as the planting season approaches, crop and weather specialists warn.

Soil moisture is below average in much of Alberta and pockets of Saskatchewan, where fall rains and winter snowfall were minimal.

"Being so dry, there's not going to be a lot of moisture for the plant to tap into," said Guy Ash, weather and crops surveillance analyst for the Canadian Wheat Board.

Significant portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan experienced record warmth throughout the winter. This, combined with minimal snowpack has placed some northern Alberta regions on a drought watch, Ash said.

The provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba make up Canada's main grain-growing region. While precipitation and soil moisture in western regions of the Prairies are below average, some eastern regions are so saturated that late snowfall or early spring rains could force farmers to drain their fields before planting.

Soil in southern Alberta; central, southwest and northeast Saskatchewan; and southern Manitoba were saturated by heavy fall rains. Eastern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba, particularly the Red River region, also received average to above average snowfall, Ash said.

"This makes the potential for very high soil moisture levels come springtime with the snow melt," Ash said.

Seeding can take place any time between April and June, but Environment Canada's forecasts for a cool spring make early planting unlikely.

"What they need is basically a warmer spring, that's what's going to determine how early they go in. We need something above average," said Aston Chipanshi, climate specialist for the federal government's Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration.

Chipanshi said on-farm water supplies for livestock could also be threatened in the western Prairies.

"Most of the dugouts (and) most of the dams might not fill out, so there could be some shortages in terms of on-farm water supply for the animals and for domestic use," he said.

Dugout levels in southwestern Saskatchewan, and central and northern Alberta, are forecast to be below average because of the limited snow conditions, Chipanshi said.