During the first three weeks of June, weather patterns across most of the province have been dominated by a series of wet episodes, punctuated with short dry periods, rarely lasting more than about five days. In fact, this pattern has generally been ongoing since about mid-April for most areas south of Slave Lake.
“Since the start of the growing season (April 1), all along the foothills, ranging from the southern Peace Region to the US border, most lands have received 200- 250 mm of precipitation, and similar amounts have fallen across large areas in the North East as well as through lands in and around the Swan Hills,” says Ralph Wright, manager agro-meteorological applications and modelling section, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Edmonton. “For the North East region and some parts of the North West, this represents about half of the normal amount of precipitation they receive in an entire year, resulting in some locals seeing this much moisture on average, less than once in 50-years.”
In contrast, says Wright, over the past 30 days, drier conditions have prevailed across most of the central and northern Peace Region, with precipitation accumulations that have been well below normal. “Looking back over the past 365 days, the northern Peace has some very dry areas, approaching one in 25-year lows, while most areas south of Slave Lake are generally well above normal, with several widely scattered areas approaching once in 50 year highs.”
The dangers of blue-green algae
An Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) water specialist has a warning about the dangers of blue-green algae.
“Blue-green algae is actually cyanobacteria, and can produce toxins that can be very dangerous,” says Shawn Elgert, agricultural water engineer, AF, Barrhead. “It can cause organ damage or even death if ingested by livestock or pets. If you are trying to determine the cause of poisoning, there are other potential toxins on the farm that can also cause damage to cattle such as poisonous plants. An example of this is water hemlock.”
Elgert says the first and most important step is to identify the type of growth. “Blue-green algae can look like blue-green scum, pea soup or grass clippings suspended in the water. You should start watching for it when the temperatures increase.”
If blue-green algae is suspected in a dugout, it is best to be cautious, says Elgert. “You should contact a water specialist to diagnose the growth to determine if it is potentially a toxic growth. You should also remove your livestock from the water source in the interim and prevent them from accessing it. One rule of thumb is that if you can grab it as a solid mass in your hand that is not blue-green algae.”
If blue-green algae is present, the dugout can be treated using a copper product registered for use in farm dugouts. “Once you treat it, consumption should be restricted for up to a month. The use of copper will break the cells open and release the toxins if present into the water all at once, so it’s important that you stop using the water during this time so the toxins can degrade. You can follow up with aluminum sulfate and/or hydrated lime treatments afterwards to remove the nutrients from the water to prevent regrowth.”
Elgert says there are also preventative measures that can be taken to try to avoid the problem.
“Temperature is an important factor in the growth of blue-green algae, so a deeper dugout with slopes that are not too flat would help make the dugout water cooler.”
Nutrients are required for growth of blue-green algae. “We have information on how to reduce nutrients from entering the dugout in our Quality Farm Dugouts manual. Buffer strips and grassed waterways are examples of how you can reduce nutrients. Dugouts should not be built in the waterway as sediments can bring more nutrients into the dugout and depth can be lost quickly. Aeration of the dugout can also help improve the water quality. Also, a dye packet can be thrown into the dugout to help prevent photosynthesis from occurring, thereby reducing the growth of blue-green algae. However, one action alone may not be enough to prevent growth.”
Elgert also notes that the wind can push the blue-green algae into highly concentrated pockets where the risk of harm is higher. “Since blue-green algae can rise or fall in the water column inspection of the dugout should include peering into the deeper part of the water. Always be safe around the dugout by going along with another person and have a rope with a flotation device attached.”
For more information or assistance, contact an AF water specialist at 310-FARM (3276). AAF also has a factsheet on this subject entitled Blue-Green Algae (Cyanobacteria) in Surface Water Sources for Agricultural Usage.