“Last year, despite dry conditions in the early spring and late summer in some areas, most producers ended up with strong growth on their hay and pasture when the rain finally came in late May and June,” says John Kresowaty, with Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC), the Crown corporation that provides crop insurance to Alberta farmers on behalf of the provincial and federal governments.
Just over $4.4 million was paid out through hay and pasture insurance claims across Alberta last year – including the counties of Cardston and Warner – due to the dry conditions in early spring and late summer.
“It was one of our lowest payout years for Perennial Insurance programs over the last decade as a result of favourable precipitation and good growing conditions in June and July,” says Kresowaty. “The highest payout years for hay and pasture insurance were during the droughts of 2009 when $56 million was paid in claims, and 2002 when $89 million was paid out.”
Perennial hay and pasture crops depend on plenty of moisture early in the spring for healthy growth, says Grant Lastiwka, a provincial livestock forage business specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD).
“As a general rule, 70 to 90 per cent of the yield potential of pasture and rangeland is determined by early June across southern Alberta,” he says. While snow melt can help, getting adequate spring moisture and rainfall during April, May, and June ultimately determines whether producers will get good hay and pasture production each year, points out Lastiwka.
In the counties of Cardston and Warner, provincial moisture maps show that soil moisture beneath the snow as of late January is generally near normal to moderately high. Snow cover is generally near normal to moderately low.
Of course, nobody can predict how much moisture or rainfall the coming spring will bring, says ARD provincial soil moisture specialist, Ralph Wright. “It could be wet or things could turn hot and dry. Anything’s possible. There are still two months of winter left. It’s really a wait-and-see game because weather is so random,” says Wright.
7.5 Million Acres Insured
Unpredictable weather is the biggest reason Alberta producers insure about 7.5 million acres of hay and pasture across the province every year through AFSC Perennial Insurance programs, says Kresowaty.
Cattle producer Ron Lamb says the land he farms near Claresholm is covered in snow and his soil moisture looks good due to substantial fall rains, “but there’s a saying here in southern Alberta that we’re only ever three weeks from drought.” Lamb says that’s part of the reason he and his partners decided to insure their hay and pasture for the first time last year. “As our farm has expanded and we have more partners and more families to feed, we want to manage more of that risk,” he says, explaining that protecting his feed is vital. “We raise all of our own pastures and feed for cattle and our forage comes off quite a small land base – so if it’s dry in Claresholm, we’re in trouble. We don’t ever want to get into the position where we have to sell cows because we can’t feed them,” he says, explaining insurance provides money to help cover the cost of replacement feed in a dry year.