UPDATED: Thursday July 8, 2021 – 1435 CST – Manitoba agriculture minister Blaine Pedersen met this afternoon with provincial farm groups to talk about the drought that has put cattle producers in a bind this summer.
The province, along with Manitoba Beef Producers, Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Manitoba Forage & Grassland Association and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, will work together to help livestock producers with feed supplies and other impacts of the drought.
Pedersen’s focus is the cow herd in the province and preventing a severe drop in cattle numbers.
“I expect that cattle producers are going to cull hard … but we are really trying to avoid this mass sell-off,” he said.
“We want to try and maintain that cow herd for future years. In order for producers to do that, they need some help somewhere along the lines…. That’s why we formed this working group.”
They will meet again in a couple of weeks after the individual groups have consulted with their members on the best way to provide assistance.
In the meantime, the province has introduced a number of programs and initiatives to support livestock producers.
A list of services to help with water supplies can be found at https://news.gov.mb.ca/news/index.html?item=51558&posted=2021-07-05.
Farmers needing information about drought and feed supplies may want to check the Manitoba Forage & Grassland website, which provides some useful links at https://mfga.net/hay-relief.
The drought has become particular harsh in the province’s Interlake region.
On Ray Bittner’s farm near Moosehorn, there’s a Manitoba Agriculture weather station that monitors rainfall, temperature, wind and soil moisture.
It’s been extremely dry in Moosehorn, which is 190 kilometres north of Winnipeg and on the east side of Lake Manitoba, so it’s not surprising that the soil on Bittner’s farm is lacking moisture.
Nonetheless, the data from the soil moisture probe is eye-popping.
At a depth of five centimetres, the soil moisture content is five percent. At 20 cm it’s seven percent and at 50 cm below the surface, it’s only nine percent.
That’s almost as dry as sawdust and it explains why pastures in Manitoba’s Interlake region are short, brown and look nothing like normal.
“If you drive down the roads around here, there are a lot of pastures that are orange,” said Bittner, a former livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture who grows crops
and raises about 100 head of beef cows near Moosehorn. “After the heat dome (with 37 C temperatures in early July), the grass got so stressed it turned orange.”
The orange grass is peculiar, but few ranchers in the area are amused. Many producers aren’t sure what to do because there’s nothing for cattle to graze and their hay crop is almost non-existent.
“There’s a lot of hopelessness, to be honest,” Bittner said.
If it doesn’t rain, soon, the pastures won’t recover and producers may have to take cattle off pasture in August. That means they would need to feed cattle from August until next spring, and feed supplies in the province’s Interlake region will likely be very short.
“First cut haying is nearly complete; yields are between 25 to 40 percent of normal. Minimal regrowth has occurred and many hayfields are brown,” Manitoba Agriculture said in its July 6 crop report, describing conditions in the Interlake.
Things are so bad that the Rural Municipality of St. Laurent south of Moosehorn declared an agricultural disaster July 6 because grasshoppers and the lack of rainfall have severely damaged the forage and annual crops in the RM.
Around Moosehorn, there are few options for harvesting forage this summer. The alfalfa and native hay are in poor shape.
“If you have lowland native hay … a lot of that got damaged by frost (this spring),” Bittner said.
“If you have highland native hay, that’s probably un-harvestable because the grasshoppers have eaten it.”
Cattle producers such as Bittner who grow annual crops are likely better off. At a minimum, they will have straw for their cattle or a cereal crop that can be harvested for feed.
“The guys that have none of their own straw, I’m not sure where you’re going to pull it out of the hat,” Bittner said.
In some years, cattle producers in the Interlake purchase straw from grain farmers in Manitoba’s Red River valley, but annual crops are short this year because of the lack of rainfall and poor soil moisture across much of the province, so there won’t be an abundance of straw this fall.
Buying hay is also an option, but it may not make economic sense.
“Where do you go to buy feed?” Bittner asked. “I heard a guy (in the Interlake) bought a couple of semi-loads of round bales from Saskatchewan at $150 per bale. That doesn’t pencil (out).”
With the scarcity of forage and the high cost of buying feed, some cattle producers in the Interlake are already cutting back their herds.
The Ashern Auction Mart doesn’t normally hold sales in the summer, but this week it did “due to the drought,” its website says.
On July 7 it had 949 cattle up for auction: 539 feeder cattle and 386 slaughter cattle.
“It’s been years and years since we had a mid-July sale,” Bittner said.
Looking beyond the Interlake, cattle producers in other parts of Manitoba are also worried about pasture conditions and poor forage yields.
The region between Lake Manitoba and the Riding Mountains is also dry, said Tim Clarke, a livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.
South of the Trans-Canada, there’s been more rainfall and forage crops are better off. Conditions are far from great, but things are less bad.
“The north Interlake and the Westlake, the poor soils combined with three dry years in a row … it’s not good,” Clarke said.
“The pastures are dry. They’re going dormant…. Plus the grasshoppers, they do better when it’s hot and dry, so they’re cleaning off what little grass is growing.”