Slaughter delays complicate drought

It’s unclear how the AgriRecovery program will help sectors such as bison, but producers are skeptical. | File photo

Minor livestock species such as bison and elk face long wait times that can be harder to manage during a feed shortage

Feed shortage problems facing cattle ranchers in Western Canada are shared by those raising other livestock.

However, the troubles for those raising bison, elk and sheep are far from consistent.

“We just don’t have a well-developed infrastructure in Canada,” said Les Kroeger, Canadian Bison Association chair.

“We’re hearing of wait times of up to a year to get spots for slaughter. That’s a concern because when the animals are starting to run short on feed — if that’s your last option — waiting a year is not an option anymore.”

Kroeger said that leads to animal welfare concerns for bison producers, who can’t move their animals due to limited adequately fenced areas to place them, even if there was pasture available.

“We’re not that far away from this becoming very critical,” said Kroeger.

With the drought affecting Western Canada and the United States, the live trade isn’t an option either as everyone is struggling to find feed.

Sheep flocks on the Prairies are also being stressed by the same woes, which worsens Canada’s trade deficit in lamb products, said Royce Lodoen, Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders Association president.

With Canada providing only 30 to 40 percent of domestic demand, there were growth possibilities going into 2021, he said.

“We’ve been working really hard with the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board to expand the flocks,” Lodoen said, adding the goal was a 20 to 30 percent increase in both flock sizes and number of producers.

“We were slowly getting there and things were working well and now that is going to go completely backwards.”

On the upside, the sector can recover inventory fairly quickly if flocks sizes are reduced, and the sector doesn’t have the processing capacity issues to deal with like those being faced by bison, said Lodoen.

But he said this year’s drought and feed crisis won’t see anyone entering the business or expanding, and existing producers could find themselves in a pinch because of high feed prices.

“A lot of people were expanding last year during one of the most expensive times to ever expand and now do you pay for your really expensive sheep with really expensive feed or you drop them for a discount?” said Lodoen.

For elk producers, whose herds are often split evenly between bulls and cows, AgriRecovery will offer little help because it is focused on maintaining female breeding stock.

Elk farmer Michael Harms, who ranches along the Manitoba-U.S. border, says he’ll squeak by this year with his 80-head herd. But he said the assistance programs on offer aren’t worth the effort to apply for.

Nor will he be able to import elk from other provinces because he is in the process of going through biosecurity measures as part of the chronic wasting disease herd certification program.

To make matters worse, elk require as much feed as cattle but produce less meat.

“Right now, the elk antlers are the main market for our farm,” said Harms, who is looking to move into the export market for hunt bulls once the certification process is complete.

As well, processing capacity for elk is far less than cattle, said Harms.

“The long-term effects of this drought will be felt for 10 years, especially if you overgraze your land. That’ll be more detrimental than anything,” said Harms.

As for how the AgriRecovery program will help bison and sheep producers, both Kroeger and Lodoen are skeptical that money will help their respective sectors find feed.

“All the quality bales are gone already,” said Lodoen. “We need high-quality grain. There is no such thing as a high-quality grain in Saskatchewan this year. And if there was, we’re now competing with feedlots.”

Kroeger said those bison producers who can get through this year will come out stronger but “not everybody will survive this.”

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