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Extreme drought in Canadian prairies portends a rough growing season

Extreme drought in parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba has made for a poor start to the growing season.

A farm in the rural municipality of Sifton, Manitoba in 2006. Author: Northwest under CC SA 1.2.
A farm in the rural municipality of Sifton, Manitoba in 2006. Author: Northwest under CC SA 1.2.

Extreme drought in parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba has made for a poor start to the growing season. Across the Prairies, unusually dry conditions will jeopardize crops, threaten the water supply and increase the risk of fires. 

According to the Canadian Drought Monitor, a substantial lack of moisture in the last 6 months, along with
previously reported dry conditions, has created Severe Drought (D2) conditions in southeastern Saskatchewan. The D2 conditions also include east-central Saskatchewan, west-central and southern Manitoba.

Close to 77 percent of the Prairie region was classified as either Abnormally Dry (D0), in Moderate Drought (D1), Severe Drought (D2), or Extreme Drought (D3); this includes nearly 93 percent of the
region’s agricultural landscape.

Below-normal precipitation and variable temperatures across Canada through the month of
April allowed drought conditions to persist with an increased cause for concern in the Prairie
Region. Courtesy of Canadian Drought Monitor

The severe to extreme drought conditions seen in Canada’s prairie provinces extends down into northern North Dakota, with farmers in the whole region describing extremely low soil moisture this spring.  NASA rates the soil moisture in the region at the one to two percentile — for soil that is zero to 100 centimeters deep.

Very little precipitation in the province in the last week has worsened topsoil moisture conditions, Saskatchewan Agriculture said in its crop report released Thursday. About 38 percent of the 2021 crop is seeded, well ahead of the five-year average of 22 percent for this time of year.

Manitoba farmer Chuck Fossay has never seen his fields this dry. As he scoops up a handful of black topsoil, it runs through his fingers like sand. Like many Canadian prairie farmers, he was trying to get his canola crop in the ground. “It’s just bone dry. And there’s nothing there to support the seed and the crop to grow,” he said.

Cutting oats, Brandon, MB, about 1922. Image is in the Public Domain). Farming in Canada’s prairie provences goes back generations.

“There are reports of producers across the province, in the south, central and north, who have decided to take some time off from seeding now that they’ve finished their other crops,” said crops extension specialist Matt Struthers, according to Global News.

John Pomeroy is a Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan’s lab in Canmore, Alberta.

According to CBC Canada, in describing the extent of the drought, Pomeroy said what is unusual this year is the scope of the dryness, extending “from Vancouver Island to southern Quebec, down into the United States, into California, right into Mexico … it’s enormous.”

Besides the extremely dry conditions creating a greater risk of wildfires, they also threaten the water supply as rivers dry up and lake levels drop.

“There’s a lot of small communities, rural communities that have a less than reliable water supply. So they might get their water, for example, from a shallow well, they might get their water from a reservoir and those water supplies are being depleted,” said Dave Sauchyn, a professor and researcher with the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. 

Grain elevator along Railway Avenue in Broderick, Saskatchewan, Canada. Image dated August 9, 2013, taken by
CC SA 3.0.

But for the farmers who rely on Mother Nature, no amount of well, river or lake water will help the vast fields of grains or the pastures needed to feed cattle.

Bill Campbell has a farm close to the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. As president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers, an advocacy group based in Winnipeg, he is already hearing from other farmers, worries about the drought.

“We always say that April showers bring May flowers. Well, it also brings me grass,” Campbell said as he watched his cattle graze on grass that is brittle and dry. “We rely on retention ponds, dugouts, springs, creeks, various water streams and a lot of them are dry and cattle will not survive without water,” he said.

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