With extended durations of ground snow and above-average meltoff, Idaho grain growers have already seen a preview of what this season has in store for them.
While long-range weather forecasts aren’t indicating adding catastrophic flooding – as seen during 1996 – to the mix, producers are up against production delays and crop disease for this year’s harvest, threatening to chip away at prices already predicted to be lackluster.
So, what’s the good news? Weather systems currently being experienced, wet and cool, will likely remain active, “equal chances of normal temperatures,” said LeeAnn Allegretto, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Missoula, “nothing too cold, nothing too hot.” The cause for this is being caught in the right position between the Polar and Pacific jet streams, she explained, making for the right equation of cold temperatures and large amounts of moisture.
“We’re not expecting it to be a really dry, hot spring in early summer, which is good,” she said, “because things won’t flood as much.” She clarified that flooding is not being ruled out, but more specifically catastrophic events. That last will depend on how fast the snow melts off, and as well how those warm temperatures impact water released at higher elevations.
“But we’re not looking at prolonged ground melt plus snow melt plus rainfall, which could be bad,” she said.
Even without that higher elevation meltoff, Allegretto said, lowland flooding could still occur due to additional snowfall between now and May that melts, in conjunction with the rainy season.
Throughout the North-Central Idaho region, it’s looking to be wetter than normal, a 40 percent chance, she said, “so plan for wet, plan for muddy pastures.”
For wheat growers, the right equation of weather is proving problematic.
For the winter wheat crop, if it remains under snow cover for more than 100 days, explained Cathy Wilson, director of research collaboration, Idaho Wheat Commission, it has the potential to develop snow mold. Wet, cold conditions under the top level of unfrozen soil creates a unique microclimate conducive to several types of fungi.
“Cold, wet ground favors Pythium,” Wilson said. This attacks seedlings as they attempt to germinate, resulting in reduction of the stand. “This is generally more in the spring crop than in the winter crop, but Pythium can be an issue with crops not well-established before they went into the winter dormancy period.”
“For areas where that will be an issue,” she said, those in higher elevations and in regions of extended periods of snow cover, “we won’t know until it’s uncovered.”
A change this season is anticipation of a late spring, which means growers won’t be able to get into the fields early to do work.
“It is very different from the last two years,” Wilson said. “People at the end of February were starting their spring field work…. Even if the snow is gone, the ground is going to be wet and cold.”
This season’s snow loads have been heavy in moisture. Within this region, for example, snow water equivalent, according to Allegretto, were 130 percent of normal in Clearwater County and northern portions of Idaho County. Beyond crops, snow loads have been a problem for ag buildings, Wilson said, notably in the border area of eastern Oregon and western Idaho.
“In Weiser, Parma, there has a been a lot of damage to farm buildings that impacts our growers,” collapsing on equipment and onto onion and potato storage resulting in loss of product.
Snowmelt has also impacted transportation, such as in eastern Idaho where closures along highways 84 and 86 have made travel difficult to attend winter meetings and productions schools for both growers and presenters, Wilson said.
With all the challenges from this winter, growers will face lackluster wheat prices.
“We do not see huge improvements,” Wilson said, explaining, “There’s a lot of wheat stocks being held in the U.S. and around the world, one of the highest reported in quite a few years; we don’t see prices coming up. We’re at near-historic lows on pricing, so that’s not great news, but it is what we expected going forward.
She said Idaho had a record-breaking crop in in 2016. Average bushel per acre was 91 across the state from dryland to irrigated to intense farming. In comparison, the 10-year average is 75 bushels per acre. Overall the state had pretty good quality – “We had good rain in most of our areas, nothing was stressed and we had really high yields,” she said -- though she noted northern Idaho growers experienced issues with low falling numbers.
Good news for northern Idaho growers, Wilson said work is largely on schedule as relates to lock repairs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Columbia River system, which has been shut down since December 2016 with plans to reopen in early March.
The closure is significant. As noted in an article in last fall’s North Central Idaho Farm and Ranch publication, from the Port of Lewiston, downriver traffic connects 17,000 square miles of Palouse and Camas Prairie farmland to global markets. The overall 468-mile river system from Lewiston to the Pacific Ocean annually handles nine million tons of cargo worth about $3 billion, and about 40 percent of all American wheat.
As of the beginning of March, “Maintenance has been coming along pretty well,” Wilson said, from progress reports the commission has been receiving. “Some delays the weather cause made it really difficult to do work in the Portland area and upriver, but they have been working hard and in most cases they are on schedule.”