Drought forces producers to sell cattle

Lack of rainfall this spring has parched the pastures and hay crops that cattle producers rely upon.  | File photo

Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan asks government for a drought-related AgriRecovery assessment

Puddles. The sight of them in fields near Camrose, Alta., pleased Alberta rancher Brad Osadczuk as he drove home from last week’s Alberta Beef Producers meeting in Edmonton.

He hasn’t seen a puddle since last year on his ranch near Jenner, Alta., the western side of a widespread drought affecting southeastern Alberta, most of Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba. A late April snow was the last measurable moisture received in Special Area 2 along the Saskatchewan border.

Lack of rainfall this spring has parched the pastures and hay crops that cattle producers rely upon. Some are already selling cow-calf pairs and culling heavily because they don’t have enough feed. Yearlings are also heading to feedlots earlier than normal.

“We are very desperate,” said Osadczuk about pasture conditions in his region. “This is the third out of the last four years that have been extremely dry and we’re in tough shape. Fields are going backwards. On a lot of them the hilltops are already brown.”

He has sold 65 cow-calf pairs this year due to dry conditions and that might not be the end of it.

“I’m looking at probably selling another 100 head of pairs. I’ve got some feelers out looking for some grass up north and in Saskatchewan but honestly, east of us isn’t much better. So that’s my strategy. If it started raining, I would be fine, put it that way.”

It’s a similar situation one province over, said Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association president Bill Huber. Rain has been in short supply this spring, exacerbating conditions already dry after low winter snow pack and minimal rain last autumn.

“There’s stress on the market because when you get such a big area like this, you’ve got a lot of producers and a lot of cattle. There’s not many people wanting to buy pairs at this time of year, especially with it being dry and a shortage of feed,” said Huber.

“The cull cow market is pretty strong yet … but anybody that’s forced to sell pairs are certainly going to be taking a very, very big discount on the price. That market could totally dry up where you’ve got nobody wanting to buy them.”

Drought conditions prompted Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan to call on federal and provincial governments for response. APAS asked for a drought-related AgriRecovery assessment, assistance with water supplies and water management and designation of the entire province as eligible for the federal livestock tax deferral program.

“Both the federal and provincial governments have been open to talking and consultations, and that’s what a lot of our calls were, is just to ensure those lines of communication are open and remain open,” said APAS president Todd Lewis.

“We’re all hoping that all these plans don’t have to become necessary but it’s looking more and more like it.”

In the Virden area of Manitoba, rancher Larry Wegner said last week there had been about one inch of rain since mid-March, although more rain fell on the weekend. Careful grazing is paying off for his operation but winter feed will be a challenge.

That was discussed at recent a Manitoba Beef Producers meeting. Wegner is a director for District 6.

“All the areas are dry. All the hay crops are going to be short. If you’re not worried about pasture you’re going to definitely worry about winter feed.”

Wegner also works at the auction mart in Virden, where feed shortages are evident on the sales docket there and in other prairie auction markets.

“We’re selling a lot of cows. This time of year we should be selling 100 cows a week. I think there’s close to 400 or 500 going through today,” he said on June 12. “The prices have dropped. The cows have dropped probably 10 cents a pound, the top end cows … over the past three weeks.”

Wegner said some ranchers are turning their cows into hay fields, since it’s unlikely a hay crop can be realized. That solves an immediate feed problem but doesn’t bode well for feed availability this winter.

Osadczuk said it’s already an issue. Little to no hay will be baled on unirrigated land, and irrigated hay will be costly.

“The number I’ve heard already is $300 a ton. … At that price, it’s sell the cows. We paid $200 last year and that wasn’t really feasible but we did it. But we won’t do it again. I don’t think we can. I don’t think we can afford to pump that much money into feed.”

In Saskatchewan, Huber said his sons are fencing off hay fields so they can graze the cow herd. Other ranchers are considering turning cows into cereal crops that are short and drought-stressed.

Only one thing can change what has proven to be a dire situation: rain.

“Some people say it’s too late for rain now,” Huber said June 12.

“Rain is never too late. We’ll take it any time it comes and just hope it comes. The sooner the better.”

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