Prairies drought causes early cattle sales

Medicine Hat Feeding Company auctioneer Darren Lutz is flanked by Fred Verhaest and Cindy Dennis during the auction market’s bull sale on Aug. 4.  |  Alex McQuaig photo

Heat and drought are combining to limit feed supplies and pasture capacities, forcing producers to ship herds

Drought continues to blaze a path of scorched pastures, making feed and water more difficult to find and leaving beef producers with tough choices this fall.

“We’re going to see a large sell-off of cows,” said Lyle Taylor, owner of the Medicine Hat Feeding Company auction market.

The choice will come down to basic economics, said Taylor.

Many ranchers are facing winter feed costs that will exceed the price they will get for their animals in spring.

“I think it’ll be a real hard cull on heifers,” said Taylor. “I think the price will be tough. As a producer, I’ll just hold my nose, get a town job and sell stuff, ‘cause I don’t know what else to do.”

Taylor said the pressure is being felt across the agriculture industry — on the cattle and the grain farming side.

“To be in agriculture, you have to have true grit.”

He said a number of beef producers will likely quit the business, with smaller-scale ranchers likely taken over by larger operations.

Melanie Wowk, chair of Alberta Beef Producers, said government aid likely won’t completely stop that from happening, but it could reduce the number of people leaving the industry if cow-calf operators are able to hold on to more of their herd longer.

How big the herd sell-off becomes won’t be fully known until the cows come off pastures and the fall market run begins, said Wowk, who ranches near Two Hills, Alta.

“We want to try to keep as many of those mother cows as we can in Alberta.”

Fuel costs are also rising along with hay and barley, while drought-affected crop yields are doing little to provide additional feed sources.

ABP would like governments to provide at least $200 per head in assistance.

But even with a per-head payout, we’re just giving cattle producers some breathing room to try to figure out what they are going to do for the winter.”

Wowk said a recent tour of drought-affected areas around Bassano, Alta., with ABP officials and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen has given hope that help is on its way.

“I think they got the message loud and clear and I believe they are working with the federal government to try to hammer something down and get an announcement out there,” said Wowk. “Producers are on the cusp right now and they need to know, is there help coming or isn’t there?”

The situation in Saskatchewan is no better than Alberta’s, said Ryder Lee, Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association chief executive officer.

Ranchers Aloise Bosch, left, and Dan Eremenko enjoy a lighter moment during a bull sale at Medicine Hat Feeding Company last week. | Alex McQuaig photo

Sustained moisture would offer the best relief, said Lee, but with no end in sight to the hot, dry temperatures, he is echoing calls for a per-head payment.

“We’ve put forward $400-a-head as our calculation for the extraordinary costs to get through this period,” said Lee.

That number takes into account extra feed costs, water and fencing of croplands for grazing, he said.

And even that assistance might not be enough, with space in feedlots becoming difficult to find.

Brad Betcker, owner of T Bar Ranch near Seven Persons, Alta., said his phone is constantly ringing from producers looking for space at his feedlot.

“We have 500 of our own cows but we took another 1,600 cows from other guys for the winter,” he said. “I’ve probably turned away another 5,000.”

Betcker said cattle producers across Western Canada, and in Montana and the Dakotas, are bracing for the inevitable fall sell-off.

“There is going to be good bred cows that should be staying in the herd for years to come that are going to be slaughtered,” he said.

For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

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