Although things can always change, producers here in Southwest Alberta hope that early predictions of a less severe La Niña summer will come to fruition, especially after experiencing one of the driest years on record in 2023.

One person who knows that all too well is Pincher Creek-area producer Russell Bruder. He owns a half-section of native grassland on the West Kerr Road, just off Highway 6, south of the community, that he rents out for grazing.

“This (coming) year … fire, drought, cattle. I’ve heard a lot of things that are of concern with potentially going in the third year of drought,” Bruder says. 

“And then, as an agricultural municipality … crop loss, crop production. We saw some things last year … neighbours and farmers, where it was a near miss, where they almost didn’t get enough of it off or it was crop insurance paying for it.”

With no real relief the last two years, Bruder says an extremely low snowpack, a lack of significant moisture and little or no run-off could result in another challenging year for the farming community.

“Everybody is trying to plan ahead,” he says. “A lot of guys started digging dugouts last year.”

Bruder did the same to get every last drop of rain and run-off. Others, however, had to make some tough concessions.

“Lots of producers sold their cattle because they didn’t have enough feed to carry them through the winter,” he says.

“Everybody’s thinking the same thing. We’re all hoping for a wet spring, but if it doesn’t come, we got to be prepared for it.”

Bruder figures that with the absence of last year’s usual spring rains and the dry summer that followed, his operation probably lost some 30 days or more of grazing. A good year might send him into late October or early November.

As we move into March, the question remains — is there enough moisture in the ground now, even with three fairly sizable snowfalls in recent weeks?

Bruder believes “there’s enough to get things started in this country,” but hay, for example, relies on deep moisture through the winter and into the spring. “So, if we don’t have a wet spring, we could have another really poor output on hay.”

An avid and knowledgeable outdoors enthusiast, he says one true indicator of what lies ahead is the depth of snow in the backcountry right now. At knee-deep and chest-deep, he classifies it as the worst he’s seen in 30 years. And it appears we’re not alone.

“What I’m hearing is you got to get down to Cooke City, Montana, [near the Montana-Wyoming border] before you get substantial snowfall that’s anywhere near normal.”

In comparison, British Columbia’s East Kootenay region, as of Feb. 1, had just 63 per cent of its normal snowpack while the Upper Columbia, traditionally a snow haven that includes Golden and Revelstoke, was at 61 per cent. In general terms, Alberta sits at 66 per cent, or 34 per cent below normal.

With reservoirs at historic lows, what many describe as a changing climate and the potential for a third straight year of drought, Bruder says some in the agriculture industry, particularly those in the crops sector, are considering alternatives.

It could be the future if the extended drought were to continue.

“There are some farmers that are growing other crops such as camelina instead of canola, so there are guys out there that are changing their strategies,” he says. “Camelina is far more growth tolerant. It doesn’t need as much moisture to produce a profitable crop.”

The longtime forage producer, however, is staying the course, hoping for spring rains, tall grass and cattle back in his fields come June. And the belief that this year can only be better. 

By Dave Lueneberg, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Feb 29, 2024 at 12:06

This item reprinted with permission from   Shootin' the Breeze   Pincher Creek, Alberta

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