June 22, 2009 / 5:16 PM / in 8 years

Rain brings hope to drought-stricken Western Canada

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - A soaking rain Sunday has raised hopes of saving the new crop in the Western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, but it largely missed the severely dry areas of neighboring Alberta.

“It’s almost gone from a dust bowl to a mud bowl (in places),” said David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada. “It’s like a rainbow for growers and ranchers.”

The rainbow halts, however, at the provincial boundary between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Rainfall amounts ranged Sunday from 35.5 millimeters (1.4 inches) in the Saskatchewan city of Saskatoon to 25.2 millimeters (1 inch) further west in Kindersley, Saskatchewan. But it trickled down in Alberta to 11 millimeters in Medicine Hat and just 2 to 3 millimeters in Red Deer and Coronation.

Most crops are behind in development because of the driest spring in 50 years in Western Canada’s wheat and canola growing region, combined with earlier cool temperatures. Canada is the world’s top exporter of canola, a variant of rapeseed, and one of the biggest shippers of wheat.

Ranchers have also been facing higher feed costs with poor growth of pasture and hay land.

For west-central Saskatchewan, Sunday’s rain was a crop-saver for plants already established, said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and market analysis for the Canadian Wheat Board.

“If we didn’t receive this it was not going to get to anything,” Burnett said. Those fields have likely still suffered yield damage and will need more rain to keep the crop growing, he said.

The dry Kindersley and Rosetown areas of Saskatchewan are forecast to get 10 to 15 millimeters (0.39 to 0.59 inches) of rain overnight.

The outlook remained desperate in Alberta, with two-thirds of the province desperately needing rain, said Joe Michielsen, a soil moisture technologist for the provincial government.

“There’s no reserve moisture (in the soil) at all. We need a real good rain.”

Even with rain now, many fields would have uneven germination, making crops difficult to harvest, he said. Farmers would usually wait to harvest in fall until the latest-germinating part of their crop ripens, but the late timetable means waiting would likely risk losing the crop to frost, Michielsen said.

Many farmers will now likely convert poorly-growing crops into livestock feed, he said.

At least eight Alberta counties have declared the drought a disaster, a step toward claiming government assistance.

The forecast contains some hope for dry parts of Alberta, where there’s a strong chance of rain Monday and overnight. Northeastern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan regions were under an Environment Canada warning Monday morning that they could receive 50 millimeters (2 inches).

Drought is only one major weather problem for this year’s crop. An estimated 900,000 acres may remain unseeded in the province of Manitoba after the deadline for full insurance coverage of wheat and barley passed on Saturday, the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp said on Monday. Manitoba planting was delayed because of severe spring flooding.

That would be the most unseeded acres in four years, said Craig Thomson, vice-president of insurance operations for the corporation, which is the Manitoba government’s farm insurance and lending agency.

Frost hit parts of the Prairies three times within a week in early June. Most canola growers likely didn’t replant, said Jim Bessel, senior agronomy specialist for the Canola Council of Canada. A key concern for that crop now is that some fields have fewer plants because of frost damage, causing them to branch out and take longer for seeds to mature, he said.

Editing by Marguerita Choy; Editing by David Gregorio

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