THORSBY, Alta. — From as far south as the United States border and up the Queen Elizabeth highway that bisects Alberta, there is a veil of dust hanging in the air as farmers cultivate and seed crops in mid-April.
Alberta Agriculture reports most of the growing area of the province is under very warm to extremely warm conditions and growing areas are considered dry.
It is too early to declare a disaster but farmers are nervous as they remember 2002, Alberta’s worst drought in recorded history. The spring of 2015 was also dry so drought planning for pastures should have started then, said forage specialists at a drought management workshop at Thorsby, Alta., on April 19.
“The number one drought strategy should have been started last year to stock your pastures at moderate or less stocking rate,” said Ed Bork. He is the Matthies chair in range management at the University of Alberta and farms near Edmonton.
“Remember if you had a dry year last year those plants are already stressed going into this year. They will have a shallower root mass and they need to be babied more this spring in order to make sure you get everything you can in terms of forage growth,” he said.
A subtle change of two degrees Celsius on average results in an eight percent decline in productivity. This year, Alberta Agriculture reports March temperatures were eight degrees above normal.
“If that trend continues into May and June, think about how much more water you will need to keep a viable forage stand,” he said.
Irricana rancher Doug Wray started adjusting his grazing plans last year to save this year’s pastures. Based on past experience, he has learned some hard decisions have to be made now.
Most years calves stay on his ranch and are swath grazed over winter and then turned out on grass for the summer. This year Wray decided to ship those steers on April 20 rather than turn them out to graze as yearlings. He has retained ownership as they go on feed but he can decide to sell them at anytime this year.
If dryness continues the heifers will go next.
“We have to be prepared to destock. The worst thing you want to do is have more cattle than grass,” he said. “We won’t generate the dollars that we hoped for out of those steers but we are still ahead of the game,” he said.
Wray has found alternative grazing in the past years where his cows grazed the neighbours’ land after hail or drought ruined their annual crops.
“What if it is dry this year, next year and the year after? Our game just changed. We are not doing what we want to do but we are doing what we have to do,” he said.
He keeps moisture and grazing records to make better decisions.
He typically divides his pastures into 20 acre paddocks and moves the cows every couple days. This protects the health of the forages and leaves a canopy behind so when it rains the grass will grow.
Last year was dry and the cows were moved more often. He did not get rain until July but the rested grass responded well and cattle were able to graze into October.
Forage specialist Grant Lastiwka of Alberta Agriculture said some things maybe out of a producer’s control but there are management approaches to keep grass growing.
“When things start going wrong, each mitigating step is a big step,” he said.
Precipitation in April to June will determine what happens for the rest of the season.
Some have bought feed and second cut hay is still selling at a reasonable price. Feeding the cows a bit longer may help spring grass keep growing for a few more days before turning livestock out. If cattle are turned out one day too early in the spring, three days are lost in the fall.
If cattle need to be sold, try to watch the market and avoid selling when everyone else is in a panic.
Lastiwka recommends doing a grazing plan, monitor it daily and replan if necessary.
It may help to group cattle into larger herds. Grouping herds may provide more uniform grazing and offer biological rest to the other pastures.
“It buys you one day at a time,” he said.
This is the second year of drought for many and water supplies are running short. The province has programs and funds available to cover the costs of water pumping or piping across long distances. For more information contact 780-422-5000 for help on water programs or toll free: 310-FARM.