Mother Nature can be farmer’s best friend, worst enemy

Canadians are passionate about a lot of things.

Hockey aside, a discussion about weather can help perfect strangers find common ground. Whether it’s cold, hot, wet, dry, cloudy or sunny, we all seem to like talking about our climate.

According to Dave Phillips, the popular senior climatologist with Environment Canada, “We’re known as the weather people of the world, and we have a lot of tough weather in this country.”

So what if a business and livelihood rely heavily on Mother Nature and her some­times fickle disposition?

“Farmers, in particular, pay careful attention to weather forecasts, patterns, and pro­jec­tions but in the end we simply need to deal with the best and worst of what Mother Nature has to offer,” said Don Mc­Cabe, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agricul­ture. “Too much or too little of anything is never good.”

As Ontario heads into win­ter, very cold temperatures could be costly, especially for livestock farmers. Maintaining the right temperature in animal barns requires a lot of energy and when livestock are cold, they need more food to keep warm. Cold temperatures can also result in frozen water lines to the barn or diesel-run farm equipment that refuses to start.

Yet cold weather can also be a farmer’s friend as deep frost means that some pathogens and insects are unable to survive the winter. At the same time, the trend to more moderated winter temperatures is creating a haven for invasive insects. The western pine beetle is a good example of an insect that has become acclimatized to the Canadian winter and is wreak­ing havoc on pine trees in west­ern Canada.

Another by-product of wint­er is snow. Too much snow and late spring thaws can cause de­lays in planting and ultimately harvesting. At the same time, snow-covered fields provide insulation and protect crops like winter wheat from ice damage.

Wind in particular can be a concern, especially when crops are close to harvest. Strong winds have the potential to knock down corn and wheat stalks.

When stalks are closer to ground, they become more susceptible to disease which can result in lower quality yields. In addition to damaging crops, strong winds can uproot or knock down trees onto farmers’ fences which can cre­ate an opening for livestock to escape and predators to find their way in.

What about rain? The sum­mer of 2008 may best be re­mem­bered as Ontario’s season of rain. In northern and eastern Ontario, the wet weather has impacted the quality of hay so many livestock farmers may need to supplement their hay with other feed during the com­ing months. Higher feed costs will be a double whammy be­cause the prices farmers are getting for pork and beef are lower than ever.

However if there is insuf­ficient rain, the ground can be­come too hard which makes it difficult for seedlings to pro­trude. McCabe explains, “Corn and wheat seeds require one half of their weight in water to germinate while soybeans need twice their weight.

The plant­ing depth then becomes critical to ensuring the success and quality of each crop.”

Beyond the cold, snow, rain and wind, Ontario weather can bring about an assortment of other challenges including hail. The closer a hailstorm occurs to harvest time, the more damaging it can be to crops and ultimately to the farmer’s bot­tom line.

“As farmers, we all know there is a risk to running our business which is why we plan, adapt, and change our practices to deal with the weather cards that are dealt to us,” McCabe said.

‘Yes it can be challenging but farmers in general are experts at ‘weathering’ the weather.”

from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture