‘We’re trying to prolong the agony’

Buying feed, selling cattle and lightly grazing are all on the table in the midst of a drought

Drought in many parts of Western Canada means ranchers will need to act innovatively this summer to avoid problems next year.

Importing feed is one option, says Saskatchewan Agriculture specialist Lorne Klein.

“There are numerous products out there you can truck in,” he said. “But then it’s a matter of the price.”

He said the Feed Value Calculator, which can be accessed on the Saskatchewan Agriculture and Alberta Agriculture websites, allows ranchers to determine the value of feed by comparing them to one another, based on current market prices and nutrient contents.

“There are numerous products you can put together to feed an animal over the winter,” he said.

“It’s just finding them, while also considering the price and the distance it’ll take to truck. If you’re in the heart of the drought, you’ve got the longest distance to bring feed in.”

Ranchers can also encourage their cows to graze pastures lightly so they have enough for next year. It’s what Aaron Brower, a zone director with the Western Stock Growers’ Association, has been doing.

“We’re trying to prolong the agony,” said Brower of Aden, Alta.

“Any straw, anything from canola straw, we’re trying to bale all of that stuff.”

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He’s also looking to start moving more into a fall crop rotation, which can take advantage of winter moisture.

“There’s been no good rain for a few good months,” he said. “There’s been some showers, but they don’t amount to anything.”

Ranchers may also need to look at downsizing their herd by selling some of them —something Klein said many folks won’t want to hear.

“It’s not necessarily the first step, but it can be one of the steps,” he said.

Klein said ranchers who decide to do this should calculate how much feed they’ll have and determine how much each cow will eat. If there isn’t enough feed for every animal, they’ll either have to buy more or cut back on cattle while weighing the costs.

He said some producers are letting their cows graze a field instead of baling it because the crop has been so poor, although he added that such practice is a short-term solution.

“If you’re going to sell that cow, that practice is getting you by, so the hay supply is not as critical,” he said.

Brower said he downsized his herd last year because he figured the drought would be a long one.

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“Historically, drought comes in a 10-year cycle,” he said.

“We knew it was kind of coming, so we’ve slowly started cutting the cow numbers back and haven’t been replacing them.”

But there’s more to consider.

Ranchers should look for toxic plants such as water hemlock, poison hemlock, death camas, tall and low larkspur and timber milk-vetch during a drought because they can pose a risk if they’re the only thing left on the pasture and if there’s an abundance of them, according to a blog post by the Beef Cattle Research Council.

As well, the minerals left behind when ponds evaporate could reach dangerous levels.

As for next year, producers may want to look at getting rainfall or hay insurance while also having a supply of feed they can stockpile.

“I’m anticipating at the end of this winter the feed supply in Saskatchewan will be very, very short,” he said.

“There aren’t a lot of hay bales left, so next year’s crop becomes even more critical. This can be fixed with rain this fall and rain next spring, but it’s a hurry-up-and-wait situation.”

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