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Soil moisture outlook far cry from last year

One year removed from dire predictions about soil moisture conditions, provincial experts are sounding a much more even tone for this year based on last year's dramatic recovery.

One year removed from dire predictions about soil moisture conditions, provincial experts are sounding a much more even tone for this year based on last year's dramatic recovery.But while the heavy precipitation in April and May of 2010 helped curb any worries of extreme dry growing conditions in the local counties ñ as well as many other parts of the province ñ there is still some trepidation heading into this year's growing season.ìAt the moment, most of the province isn't looking too badly for soil moisture going into the spring,î explained Ralph Wright, a soil moisture specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. ìThings look a whole lot better than they did at this time last year when most of the province was extremely dry and the situation appeared grim for farmers.îHowever according to provincial experts the only predictable thing about precipitation levels are their unpredictability.Wright said the agro-climatic maps he uses show a history of ups and downs in terms of soil conditions.ìWhat we do know is that extreme swings in soil moisture that most of the province saw last year ñ from very dry to suddenly quite wet ñ is not uncommon,î he suggested. ìIf you look back at weather maps over the last 50 years, you'll find countless examples of similar swings in various parts of the province from year to year.îAnd while many parts of the province are showing a bluer colour on the most recent maps, meaning much higher precipitation levels over the past year, there are still some local pockets that bear watching.While the Peace region remains the hot spot provincially in terms of dry conditions there are areas of Mountain View County that still experienced less precipitation over the last year than long-term normals would indicate.Generally speaking the county is considered moderately low, with the northeast and southwest portions slightly better off, being considered at least near normal.Wright said they can't predict how things turn out until a few months down the road for the drier areas, particularly based on historical experience, but he said these areas definitely need moisture.ìThese drier pockets still need a really good wet year to start turning things around,î he added.For most areas of Red Deer County, the maps show that precipitation accumulations over the last year ranges in the near normal to very high with a pocket of moderately low in the west.ìThose maps make it easy to see just how unpredictable Alberta's growing season can be,î Wright said. ìThe taps turn off and on whenever they want.îAnd while the news has a more optimistic tone than the last couple of seasons, experts are still suggesting producers take measures to protect themselves, including hay and pasture insurance and potentially changing up how they manage pastures and when they allow grazing.ìWhile many cattle producers had amazing growth on their pastures and hay crops last year thanks to all the rain, a lot of these forage stands aren't what they used to be,î said Grant Lastiwka, forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. ìThis spring, producers should consider reseeding hay and pastures back into deeper-rooted legumes and grasses that are better able to withstand drought.îWhen it comes to insurance, experts are suggesting that producers have to make a decision soon with the Feb. 28 deadline for the Cattle Price Insurance Program or Perennial Insurance for hay and pasture that the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) administers.The corporation works with the ministry to monitor conditions and has a provincial network of 196 weather stations, up by 13 over last year, to help improve the understanding of conditions across the province.ìWe try to add new stations every year, strategically locating them to reduce the distance between stations and producers' land bases,î said Chris Dyck, senior manager of insurance operations with AFSC.Last year, more than $6 million was paid on hay and pasture claims in Alberta, mostly in the Peace region.For more information on growing conditions visit agric.gov.ab.ca/acis and for more on insurance programs visit afsc.ca or contact a local office.