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The hills look like sawdust

Drought conditions in parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan are so bad, that even local rains of nearly an inch in some regions cannot help parched grasslands or early-planted crops. 


June 19, 2009
By The Globe and Mail

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June 19, 2009

Jerry Murphy has lived on 640 acres of rolling grassland just west of the Red Deer River for half a century, but he's never seen a spring like this one.


“The hills look like sawdust, really, that colour,” he said from his ranch, a short drive from Elnora, Alberta. “I've never seen it where the grass didn't turn green in the spring before.”

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He normally turns his 50 cow-calf pairs loose to graze in the first week of May. This year, he's still feeding them what hay he can find –much of it poor quality, all of it expensive. It costs him more than twice as much to feed hay as to rent grazing land.


Farmers and ranchers across a vast section of Alberta and Saskatchewan are staring down the same ominous fields of parched soil and brown crops.

In portions of the hardest-hit region, which stretches in a triangle pattern from Saskatoon to Edmonton and Calgary, 2009 marks the driest spring Agriculture Canada has seen in the 70 years records have been kept in the area.


The arid soil, combined with record-cold temperatures, have killed many cash crops and left ranchers with pastures of brown stubble to feed cattle.

Producers say the circumstances are ominously comparable to those of 2002, when much of the Prairies grappled with the worst drought in 133 years. Farm incomes sunk by 70 per cent in some regions and growers as far away as PEI shipped their hay to desperate western cattleman.


 to 2002,” said Trevor Hawden, an agri-climate specialist with Agriculture Canada. “Only it's larger and more severe in places.”


Last Thursday, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) cut its wheat, durum and barley forecasts by 20 percent due to the dry, cool conditions. And its all-wheat yield estimates stand at 33.4 bushels an acre, the lowest projection in seven years.


“Since last Thursday, conditions have only continued to deteriorate,” said Bruce Burnett, CWB director of weather and market analysis. “Yield potentials are very low. In practical terms, farmers are looking at their options.


"The hills look like sawdust"