The winter of 2013/2014 has worn out its welcome with most area residents, including local farmers.
But brutally low and long temperatures, deep and lasting snowdrifts and unprecedented ice coverage on the great lakes, shouldn’t have croppers throwing out the equivalent of an agricultural life raft, just yet.
“Ice coverage on the lakes doesn’t make a doggone bit of difference,” said OMAFRA Soil and Crops Specialist Peter Johnson, noting a study of lake ice coverage during a winter compared to heat units available that May doesn’t raise any red flags.
“There is absolutely no correlation whatsoever.”
That doesn’t mean over-wintering crops will escape completely unscathed, however. Snow cover has sheltered a majority of the province’s winter wheat, rye and alfalfa, but a lack thereof in the Niagara region coupled with extremely cold temperatures may lead to some localized damage.
Straight up cold-weather damage is rare enough says Johnson, but “there is some concern in isolated pockets of the province.”
Windswept knolls are also susceptible says Johnson. In order, alfalfa is the least hardiest against cold weather, followed by wheat, and rye, which typically suffers the least damage.
“So no great concern there at all.”
The vulnerability of aphids which have been a problem in soybean crops are one potential plus to the sub-zero temperatures. This year’s winter may result in a substantial winter kill, says Johnson.
“That’s a good news story if that indeed did happen.”
Frost depths vary widely, continued the soils and crops specialist. In some areas, frost runs as deep as a metre, in others, in some cases rather close geographically, there is very little frost where snow has provided insulation, a disparity revealed by efforts including digging for wind turbine anchors and drainage.
“It’s quite an interesting dichotomy.”
Spring thaws followed by a lengthy freeze can prove problematic, says Johnson, if water puddling or extensive freezing occurs. Plants are dormant through the winter, but need oxygen to survive and if they are submerged for a two-week period in either liquid or solid water, it can be detrimental.
“The crops will be dead.”
Sandier ground’s drainage qualities make it less susceptible to damage more prevalent on heavier, particularly clay-based soils.
“There is significant potential for some wheat and alfalfa loss due to puddling and ice damage,” said Johnson.
Much of what is traditionally understood as winter damage is actually early-spring damage, says Johnson, during the repeated thaw-freeze cycle associated with maple syrup season. During that time, the repeated cycle acts as repeated ‘clicks’ on a jack, and can effectively level plants out of the soil.
“We haven’t got rid of the snow, so it’s way too early to tell if that will be a key or not.”
Recharging the soil’s moisture level is typically not a concern, and given this year’s snow coverage, certainly not for 2014’s planting season.
“We are in good shape from a moisture perspective,” said Johnson.
In fact, given farmers’ eagerness to get out onto the soil as early as possible, there may be too much moisture – both frozen and otherwise – on the land at the moment. Things can change in a hurry, however said Johnson, noting a few 20-degree days can make a significant difference.
“April 20th is still early (to get on the land),” said Johnson, noting that while it is in fact far too early to make any tangible predictions, there’s no large reason for concern at this point.
“We’re not in bad shape at all as of the 13th of March.”