EASTERN ONTARIO —An early jump to the cropping season evaporated as April turned to May.
"We’re not late, but we’ve slipped right back to schedule on most things," said Gilles Quesnel, field crops specialist and integrated pest management program lead with Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs.
"From a field crops standpoint, we were ahead, but the cold weather has brought us back close to normal. We’re not behind," he said of the regional picture in Eastern Ontario.
The scant winter snow load disappeared early this year, causing river and creek levels to plummet while record high temperatures took hold through a dry March. The cultivators were out in full force that month and into April, visible dust clouds left in their wake.
Dry and mild conditions persisted until the middle of last month, when the weather suddenly turned much cooler with variable precipitation, ending the head start. And it got downright cold, as parts of Eastern Ontario received a blanket of spring snow on April 23.
"It’s been so cool ever since that the drying [process] has been slow," explained Quesnel on May 3.
Despite the resulting delay, April’s rain and snow was "welcome" and "more of a benefit" overall, he said. The top two inches of soil had begun to dry out too much in some instances, according to the OMAFRA staffer, particularly where cultivation had gone a little deep. Consequently, spring wheat and other cereal plantings that went into the ground in plenty of good time this year experienced "a bit of unevenness" in emergence, though they still looked good overall.
"And this moisture we’ve had will help bring it on," he added, noting that spring wheat fields have reached the two- and three-leaf stage.
From mid-March to mid-April, the region accumulated 6 mm of precipitation, about half the annual average during that time frame, he said.
And that late-April snow didn’t hurt emerging wheat and new alfalfa seedings, he pointed out, as the ground retained heat and generally kept the little plants above freezing.
But temperatures have prevented those alfalfa seedlings from growing very quickly, and combined with substantial winterkill observed in the region, there have been concerns about a tight hay supply, according to Quesnel. "But things are picking up."
Though it varies by county, he estimated that 35 per cent of the Eastern Ontario corn crop had been planted to date, pretty much on target for the beginning of May.
From mid-April to the end of that month, the region received roughly 60 corn heat units, he said, about one-third the amount needed to pop the crop up after planting. "It’s there and it’s starting to develop a bit of a root. As soon as we get a bit of sunshine, it doesn’t take too much to warm up that dark coloured soil.
In Prince Edward County, cash-cropper and Pioneer Lloyd Crowe estimated that growers in his area had managed to plant only 10 per cent of the corn crop.
"Two weeks ago, it was good going. Most spots were dry," said Crowe of the situation at Reynolds Brothers Farms, where he’s a partner. The Picton-area operation had about half its corn planted.
On his cell phone while wrenching on the farm’s corn planter May 3, Crowe commented: "We started off planting all our low areas, saving all our high sandy-loam areas for last, so that turned out to be a good move. But we haven’t been able to do much in the past week to 10 days."
The cooler weather conditions have also delayed weed-spraying activities in their 700 acres of winter wheat, he added.
While he would have preferred to have all of his corn and soybeans in the ground, Crowe acknowledged that almost no soybeans had been planted anywhere in Eastern Ontario by that point on the calendar. He explained that he breaks a bit with conventional wisdom on that crop and prefers to see beans planted as early in May as possible. He gauges a noticeable loss in yield when soybeans are planted any later than mid-May. "But you can’t do everything," he said, noting that this year’s schedule still remains well ahead of last year’s very wet spring. Yet the 2011 harvest still wound up producing the "best ever" year for the farm, he said, thanks to extended summer weather at the end of the growing season.
But the wet fall that concluded 2011 reduced the number of winter wheat acres now sprouting in the spring of 2012. Crowe said they managed to plant only half the winter wheat acreage they initially aimed to achieve at Reynolds Brothers. They’re not alone, he said, suggesting the market for straw looks to be tighter as a result.
Quesnel said he’s noticed an uptick in the number of spring-wheat acres planted this year, likely driven in part by the need to create additional straw.
The drier conditions that prevailed earlier in the spring also allowed farmers to draw out their manure in good time, in stark contrast to the challenges experienced a year ago. So the land’s prepared and fertilized, Quesnel noted. Farmers have already "had a chance to put some crops in. They’ve tried out the equipment. Everybody’s ready, they’re just waiting to go."
Quesnel didn’t have stats on total acres likely to be planted in Eastern Ontario, but he agreed the quantity is rising as farmers take out fence rows, tile-drain secondary fields, put old pastures into production and cut down scrub and bush.