Drought Can’t Dampen Enthusiasm for Winter Wheat

Dec 15, 2017

Canadian weather is less predictable than a two-year-old and just as destructive. Nobody appreciates that more than winter wheat growers in Western Canada in 2017. While they typically rely on good moisture conditions in late April, May and early June, they instead faced the first drought in many years over much of the Prairies. Fortunately, those growers and their winter wheat crops were up to the challenge.

“We didn’t necessarily have ideal conditions for winter wheat this year,” said Paul Thoroughgood, Regional Agrologist – Prairie Region for Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Western Winter Wheat Initiative. “That said, everyone I spoke to harvested average to above average crops and also saw less disease pressure due to low humidity.”

Given the conditions, the winter wheat results for Western Canada, according to Stats Canada – 535,000 acres seeded in fall 2016 (2017 crop) – represented something that farmers don’t often experience: a pleasant surprise.

No umbrella required

“Most of us were impressed at how well winter wheat yielded, especially in the dry southern half of the Prairies,” said Thoroughgood. “The last time we had a drought this severe was…so long ago I can’t even remember. Where I farm in Moose Jaw we had 0.7 inches of rain for the entire growing season, but we made the best of it, aided by subsoil moisture and some cool nights that allowed plants to recover.”

The dry conditions meant total winter wheat acres were down from last year, but growers shouldn’t read much into that.

“This fall, even some experienced winter wheat farmers opted not to seed because of the dryness. That’s not a reason to write off winter wheat; it’s just not intuitive to seed in extremely dry conditions, but those of us who did had pretty good results.”

While the decrease in winter wheat yield over last year made for a smaller gap than usual between it and spring wheat, winter wheat has still outperformed its spring counterpart in the majority of the past five years. For Thoroughgood, that’s why it makes a lot of sense to grow both spring and winter wheat on your farm.

Diversity makes a difference

“One thing this season has taught us is the importance of diversity in your crops. When you look at conditions over the past few years, we had two wet falls and one dry one. In my area, we went from an abysmal lentil crop and good results for soybeans in 2016 to the exact opposite in 2017.”

With more diverse weather systems being the norm now due to climate change, climate variability or both, the value of having crops that you can harvest from August 1 – like winter wheat – right through to October 1 – such as soybeans – can’t be overstated.

“That may be our new reality now, to have crops that cover the gamut of weather variability. In light of the wild fluctuations in growing season conditions that we’ve seen lately, there’s a strong case to be made for hedging your bets and not having all your eggs in one basket. Winter wheat is a great way to add some of that diversity to your rotation.”