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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A wide swath of Canada's southern and central grain belt needs more snow and rain in the next four to six weeks to ease concerns about dry soils ahead of spring planting, crop specialists said.
"The critically dry areas are southern Alberta, southwestern Saskatchewan, south-central Saskatchewan. Most of the fields are bare," said Bruce Burnett, head of weather and crop surveillance for the Canadian Wheat Board.
"It is a big concern as we get into planting," he said, adding there were less than two inches of available soil moisture in the dry areas.
Soil moisture reserves act as a "cushion" for dry spells during the growing season, Burnett explained.
The same region had low reserves ahead of last year's crop. Ample spring rains helped crops get off to a good start, but a hot, dry July slashed production.
With better moisture reserves, the crop might have achieved average yields, Burnett said.
Canada is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, durum, barley, canola, flax and pulses like peas and lentils.
Planting typically begins in mid- to late April in southern areas, and in May in the northern grain belt.
Without some last-minute recharging of soil moisture reserves, farmers will have to count on ample and well-timed rains after planting, Burnett said.
If conditions stay dry, farmers may choose to grow more drought-tolerant crops like durum and lentils, or leave some land fallow, despite strong grain prices, Burnett said.
Soil moisture maps produced by the federal government's Drought Watch program show several pockets in the Prairies that have received only 40 to 60 percent of average precipitation since September 1, said Trevor Hadwen, a climate data analyst.
That includes central and northern Alberta and southwest Manitoba, where farmers grow crops that need more moisture.
"The spring rains are the thing that are really going to make it or break it for the crop producers or for the forage producers," Hadwen said, adding there is still time to improve conditions with heavy rains and late-season snowstorms.
The current La Nina weather pattern can indicate a higher probability of rains in March and April for the Canadian Prairies, said Burnett.
But he said farmers in the northern grain belt need a dry spring to avoid planting delays, which can result in unseeded area, or crops that fail to fully mature before fall frosts in Canada's short growing season.
* Drought Watch precipitation maps for Canadian Prairies here
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Jim Marshall