Cattle sell-off begins

VIKING, Alta. — Cattle are starting to trickle into the Viking Auction Market.

Farmers aren’t selling entire herds but are weeding out the dry cows, a few bottom-end calf pairs, replacement heifers and yearlings in an effort to allow their grass to stretch until the rains come.

“They’re just starting to cull and if it gets more serious, then we will see the better end,” said Cliff Grinde, owner of Viking Auction Market.

“Everyone is getting a little nervous.”

Lars Larson of Daysland, Alta., brought in two bulls to sell. He didn’t need them for his herd and he didn’t need them eating the grass in his pasture.

Since the snow melted, Larson has collected 7/10 of an inch of rain in his gauge, and the grass has stopped growing. However, Larson’s cattle didn’t graze the half section of pasture last year, and the carryover is good so far.

If it rains, the grass might last.

“There isn’t any hay. I seeded some oats for green feed and I hope it rains.”

The dry weather and poor pastures aren’t widespread across the Prairies. East-central Alberta and west-central Saskatchewan seem to be the driest with limited grass regrowth, but there are pockets that have received anything from a good rain to a few showers.

Most cattle are normally on pasture by the end of June, and the central Alberta auction usually sees 100 head a week. This week, however, 450 cattle were brought to the auction.

“They’re trickling them in and trying to save the grass,” Grinde said. “They’re all hoping and praying it will rain.”

Grinde has 750 yearlings on grass that are still being fed hay and grain as a supplement to pasture, but he’s prepared to do that for only so long.

The drought of 2002 is still fresh in producers’ minds. In that year, producers spent thousands of dollars buying feed to keep their cattle, only to have prices crash the following year because of BSE.

Ken and Denise Topolinski of Beauvallon, Alta., took four steers and two heifers to the auction June 23. A week earlier they took five steers in an effort to stretch their pasture.

“In the last few years, I’ve hayed some of our pasture, but I have a feeling this year we will pasture some of our hay field,” said Ken, who estimates they have 30 percent of the hay they had last year.

Selling the cattle mid-summer isn’t a financial hardship, said cattle buyer Gene Hoffman.

Cow-calf pairs are down from spring prices, but feeder cattle prices are still strong.

“There is money to be made if they can hang in there,” said Hoffman, who buys for several large feedlots.

He also has an order for 1,000 cow-calf pairs in the $2,500 to $3,000 range.

“Most people won’t sell them at that price. They’re supplementing the feed instead to hang on,” said Hoffman.

Auctioneer Ed McCormack of Clandonald, Alta., said farmers are selling their young replacement cattle and older cattle to ease the pressure on pastures.

“The feed situation is starting to look reasonably tough. If you’ve got to trim your herd, it’s a good time.”

McCormack isn’t seeing a wholesale sell-off of cattle herds, such as what happened in 2002. Strong prices are encouraging producers to try everything they can to hang on to the main part of their herd.

“Guys are so optimistic about the market they don’t want to let them go,” he said.

“Whoever can hold on will get rewarded, but it will be a struggle.”

Harold Carter of Kinsella, Alta., was at the auction market selling two late calving cows and an older, crippled cow.

He has plenty of grass carryover from last year, but he doesn’t want the hassle of waiting for the cows to calve.

“I try to leave some grass because this dry weather has happened before,” he said. “There are some people who can’t resist grazing so hard.”

Richard Chomlak, who farms south of Myrnam, Alta., said he also has plenty of grass and hay carryover from last year.

Some crops are struggling this year, but good snow cover, modern seeding equipment and the odd showers are keeping most crops growing in his area.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as 2002. We’re getting some showers,” he said.

Paul Wipf of Viking Colony sold 200 heifers and 150 steers a week earlier because of a shortage of grass.

“It never rained and the pastures are starting to deteriorate,” said Wipf. “There is no way they can sustain anything.”

Instead of putting the 800 pound heifers and 850 lb. steers on pasture just to lose weight, he sold the cattle to a feedlot at a good price.

Other producers are interested in putting their cow-calf pairs on colony pasture when the rain returns and the grass begins to grow.

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