Peace region on verge of disaster

Pasture lands are stressed in many areas of northwestern Alberta, making it tough for producers to feed livestock

GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. — Terry Ungarian, a councillor with the County of Northern Lights, searches for the right word to describe the hay and pasture conditions in his area of northwestern Alberta.

“The pasture and hay is a disaster, very stressed, non-existent,” said Ungarian.

He estimated that hay yields are one-quarter to one-half of normal.

Grain crops are not faring much better, and council is considering declaring the county an agricultural disaster area.

“It’s on the agenda for the next meeting,” Ungarian said during an Agricultural Service Board tour of the Grande Prairie area.

Three Alberta counties have already declared agricultural disaster areas: Mackenzie County, in the northwestern corner of the province, Parkland County, just west of Edmonton and Sturgeon County, north of Edmonton.

Ungarian will start reducing his herd when he returns from the agricultural tour. He will sell his replacement heifers instead of keeping them back to rebuild the herd.

He plans to repair old fence on a bush pasture to hopefully add a few days grazing for his cattle. He’s expecting part of his herd now on community pasture to come home early, and he needs to prepare for their early arrival back home. He has little feed, and a plague of grasshoppers has eaten part of his pasture.

“We have everything working against us we possibly could.”

Al Kemmere, president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, said crops and pastures in the north Peace are struggling, but it’s not uniformly dry across the province.

“We’re in tremendously good shape,” said Kemmere, who grows crops near Olds.

Allan McLachlan, of Fairview, Alta., said he is fighting a war against the drought and grasshoppers.

The hay crop he was baling wasn’t bad until the grasshoppers moved into the field and chewed off the alfalfa and left the timothy.

“This was a good crop, but the grasshoppers beat me to it. It’s Anik alfalfa, but there is nothing left to it. It will keep the cow’s ribs apart, but it’s just filling.”

McLachlan estimates his hay will yield one-quarter to three-quarters of a bale per acre.

If it rains, McLachlan hopes the silage crop will be boosted and he can keep most of his replacement calves. It’s unlikely he will be able to buy any yearlings to feed for the winter.

Central Alberta had good moisture reserves going into the growing season, which has helped occasional showers create an average growing season.

It’s that wide diversity in crop conditions that is holding officials from declaring the entire province a disaster area.

Kemmere is part of the province’s drought and excessive moisture advisory group, which meets every two weeks by conference call to keep up to date on crop and pasture conditions.

For some farmers, the crop and pasture conditions are similar to 2002, when drought wiped out most of the province’s crops and pasture. For others, their crops may not be bumper, but they’re not ready to be written off.

“The difference is the spottiness of the rain,” Kemmere said.

Timely rain has kept some crops alive and bypassed the neighbours.

Albert Pidruchny with the County of Two Hills said crops in his municipality range from poor to average.

He has had slightly more than 25 millimetres of rain on his farm at Myrnam, while farmers 12 kilometres south have received more than 100 mm.

“We haven’t declared the county a disaster area because some parts of the county are not bad.”

Pidruchny is trying to salvage as much hay as he can and plans to turn his wheat crop into green feed for winter cattle feed if it doesn’t rain soon.

“If it doesn’t rain, it won’t be worth combining.”

Kemmere isn’t discouraging counties and municipalities from declaring agriculture disaster areas, but they need to have a disaster and not just a poor crop.

Long gone are government programs made accessible by declaring an agriculture disaster, but it does raise awareness of poor crop conditions, especially to federal and provincial officials.

Kemmere said counties must convince crop insurance officials to change the rules and allow poor grain crops to be turned into cattle feed and not forced through the combine.

“We need to talk to AFSC and take what’s not going to make it and turn it into cow feed,” he said.

“The big challenge with cattle producers is to try and find alternative crops to use for winter feed.”

Russ Horvey with Red Deer County said part of the area is drought stressed, but other areas that had isolated showers are hanging in.

“The guys who picked up the odd shower are doing OK,” he said.

The county will not be declaring an agricultural disaster.

Tanis Ponath with the Municipal District of Wainwright said the area is dry, but like the other parts of the province, some areas along the Sask­atchewan border have caught timely rain.

“There’s lots of patchy canola,” she said. “I don’t think we’re close to declaring a disaster. It’s worse in other areas than our municipality.”

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