The County of Stettler’s agriculture department is watching the weather closely, hoping for a good spring snow or rain to ensure there’s enough moisture for the growing season to start off strong.
With predictions from Environment Canada calling for a drier summer, there are chances that the county could see another drought year, though it’s far too early to predict that, Quinton Beaumont, director of agriculture services, said.
The mild winter has already wreaked havoc in some parts of the province, with some counties west of Stettler declaring fire bans in February and March. Without the winter snow pack and limited rain in some areas, last season’s stubbly fields are dry tinderboxes.
That’s not the case in Stettler County, however, as rain and occasional snow have ensured the soil remains damp enough to avoid the very dry conditions found in southwestern Alberta.
Gophers are already out and about, Ryan Hallett, assistant director of agriculture services, confirmed. The little furry rodents were a particular pest last year, with many farmers coming to the county in search of control options.
With mild weather essentially confirming larger litters of the pest, Hallett said it wouldn’t be surprising to see another run of farmers looking to control the problem.
The county’s fields and pastures were in generally good condition going into the winter, courtesy of a late-season rainy stretch. While that made it difficult for farmers to harvest, it set up the fields for a damp spring.
Though some ranchers had to sell cattle early because pastureland had dried up and feed wasn’t either available or the cost was too great, the pastures recovered well later in the season.
Some pests are cyclical, Hallett said, and last year the county expected to have a higher-than-average infestation of grasshoppers. Combined with the dry conditions, the insects could have been devastating to farmers, but Stettler managed to avoid most of the problem.
“We didn’t really see anything higher than normal,” Hallett said. “Some areas around us had a really bad year with them, but we didn’t.”
On average, insect counts were down across the board last year, which helped the farmers already stressed by dry conditions.
Another year of drier conditions will help local farmers as some crop diseases and fungi don’t respond well to dry weather.
Sclerotinia, known also as white stem rot, is found in Canola-type crops. Considered one of the most destructive diseases that affect canola, farmers rely on checklists to inspect their crops for the fungus.
Having good looking crops but poor yields despite favourable conditions, sclerotinia rot in previous years, problems in the area, black sclerotes in harvested seeds, presence of apothecia (fungus spores) at the base of the crop are just a few signs the province recommends farmers keep an eye out for.
Fusarium, which commonly affects barley, is also on the decline in dry years, as it requires a certain level of moisture for the fungus spores to infect crops.
Clubroot continues to spread
The county found another six fields infected by clubroot in 2015, bringing the total up into the 10-49 count as tracked by the province, Beaumont confirmed.
The fungus, which affects canola and mustard, causes the root system of the crop to ineffectually absorb nutrients and water, causing reduced yields.
Paintearth County has not found any infected fields to date.
Beaumont said some of the fields may have been previously infected, but until a canola or mustard crop is sown, farmers are unable to notice an infection.
The county does random tests around its territory each year, looking for clubroot, but also asks farmers who find clubbed roots at harvest to report the information to the county.
“One tool to help deal with clubroot is clubroot-resistant canola,” Hallett noted. “But it’s not bulletproof, and the more you use clubroot resistant clubroot, the less resistant it is.”
Bio-security is the best way to deal with clubroot: Washing soil off farm machinery using a water-bleach solution and allowing the equipment to dry entirely before going into another field and washing boots in the same water-bleach solution or wearing disposable boot protectors help prevent the tracking of clubroot spores between fields.
Control of the cruciferous weeds, like wild mustard and stinkweed, is also vital as these plants are also susceptible to clubroot.
Beaumont noted that the spread of clubroot has partially been cases of bad luck, accidental spreading of spores, and in some cases, a slow uptake on the serious nature of the fungal infection.
Assistant Ag Director nearing first year anniversaryHallett, 22, will complete his first year as assistant agriculture director at the end of April. He was hired to replace Jay Byer, who vacated the role some months prior to Hallett’s hire.
Hallett was raised in the Big Valley area before heading to Lethbridge to acquire his Bachelor of Science in agriculture. The position at the county was available just as he was looking for work to return to Stettler, so he applied – and was hired.
“I really love this,” he said of agriculture. “I’m glad I get to do what I love.”
He also farms with his parents at the family farm.