John Kresowaty

Snow cover has farmers feeling optimistic about potential hay and pasture growth

As the February 28 deadline approaches for Ponoka County farmers to insure their pasture and hay land this year

As the February 28 deadline approaches for Ponoka County farmers to insure their pasture and hay land this year, above-average to normal snow cover across most of the province has many livestock producers feeling hopeful about the potential growth they’ll get on their hay and pasture once the snow melts this spring.

“We had a dry fall in many parts of the province with very limited moisture in September and October, but the producers I talk to are feeling encouraged by the amount of snow we’ve gotten so far this winter,” says Barry Yaremcio, a provincial beef and forage specialist with the Alberta Ag-Info Centre.

Dry Soil Conditions beneath the Snow

While the deep snow has been challenging for some producers – preventing cattle from swath grazing or winter grazing earlier in the season than usual – it should help offset dry soil conditions that lie beneath the snow in many regions – depending on how it melts, says Yaremcio.

“If we get a slow melt and the ground takes up most of the moisture, it should help kick-start growth on our hay and pastures this spring. But if we get a quick melt, most of that moisture will likely run off and collect in the sloughs and creeks with minimal benefit to the dry soil,” he explains, adding 10 inches of snow is equal to about one inch of water.

$4.4 Million Paid on Hay and Pasture Insurance Claims

Last year, dry conditions in early spring and late summer triggered more than $4.4 million in hay and pasture insurance claims in some areas across the province, including Ponoka County, says John Kresowaty, with Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC). AFSC is the Crown corporation that provides crop insurance to Alberta farmers on behalf of the provincial and federal governments.

“When the rain finally came in late May and June, we ended up with strong growth on hay and pasture in most regions,” says Kresowaty. He notes last year’s total payout is among the lowest in more than a decade due to favourable precipitation and good growing conditions in June and July. 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.

In Ponoka County, provincial moisture maps show that soil moisture beneath the snow as of late January is generally moderately low to low. Snow cover is generally high to extremely high.

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, and by early July across the rest of the province,” he explains. So while snow melt can help, getting adequate spring moisture and rainfall during April, May, and June ultimately determines whether producers will get good production on their hay and pasture each year, says Lastiwka.

Of course, nobody can predict what will happen this spring, says ARD provincial soil moisture specialist, Ralph Wright. “It could be wet or the snow could melt quickly and things could turn hot and dry. If it’s a cold spring, the snow could linger, delaying hay and pasture growth. There are still two months of winter left. Anything’s possible. It’s really a wait-and-see game because weather is so random,” says Wright.

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.

Spring Rain Needed

Cattle producer Dennis Herman says an “unreal amount of snow” on his farm north of Rimbey has him feeling fairly positive about his hay and pasture this year. “The snow is over our knees everywhere,” says Herman, adding he’s hoping for a slow melt. “We’ll still need a good shot of spring rain at the end of April to really get the grass growing,” he says. Herman thinks his soil moisture probably isn’t too bad thanks to rain in September and October – although he’s quick to admit anything can happen. “Only fools and newcomers try to predict the weather,” he says, explaining that’s why he insures his hay and pasture every year. “We have about 800 cattle right now so feed is critical for us. Insurance guarantees that we’ll have some money to buy replacement feed in a dry year. In 2002, we were dried right out and we got about $70,000 out of the program. It was a lifesaver,” he says.

12 New Weather Stations Added

New to Perennial Insurance this year is the addition of 12 new weather stations to the provincial network AFSC uses to determine payouts on Perennial Insurance programs for hay and pasture. “We now have 238 weather stations across Alberta that measure precipitation and other weather data,” says Kresowaty. “It’s important to have as many stations as possible so clients can select stations in close proximity to their land base that best represent weather conditions on their farm,” he says.

Farmers who take Moisture Deficiency Insurance on their pasture or include it as a rider on hay insurance select up to three weather stations, he explains. If accumulated moisture at these stations falls below normal over the growing season, a claim is triggered. Kresowaty says hay insurance also insures against yield losses caused by perils such as hail, flood, insects, disease, lightning, winterkill, and wildlife damage.

AFSC hay and pasture insurance renews automatically each year unless producers decide to cancel or make changes to their coverage. Most choose to stay in the program every year, says Kresowaty. “The premium discounts they earn likely influence that decision,” he says, noting a Continuous Participation Discount, an Experience Discount for low claims on hay insurance, and an Early Payment Discount can add up to a reduction of 60 per cent or more on hay insurance premiums.

For more information about Perennial Insurance, farmers can contact their local AFSC Branch or the AFSC Call Centre at 1-877-899-AFSC (2372) before the February 28 deadline.