The sloughs, dugouts and small creeks running along the southern half of the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, deep in Canada’s cattle country, are either dry or displaying the muddy slopes that water levels once covered.
But there is a bit more moisture around Veteran, Alta., and areas surrounding the Dryland Cattle Trading Corp.’s auction market. For its owner, Ian Goodbrand, the long-term prospects faced by the cattle industry might not be as alarming as some say.
“We’re at the beginning of a major upswing,” said Goodbrand, highlighting declining worldwide cattle inventories and increasing demand for beef products.
“(The United States) needs every cow we can send them.”
He also pointed to current prices, which have remained stable despite the looming prospect of a large herd sell-off many analysts expect this fall.
“Nobody has lost money yet,” he said.
Goodbrand was born and raised in Alberta’s Special Areas, a provincially controlled district since local municipalities collapsed under the weight of the dust bowl era of the 1930s. He served the region as a veterinarian before establishing Dryland Cattle Trading in 2005.
He said he is all too familiar with the conditions of the last large sell-off of cattle caused by drought in Alberta in 2002 and BSE in 2003.
“We’re nowhere near that.”
For this year, he predicted single digit reductions in overall cattle numbers.
“We don’t have the infrastructure to kill 30 percent of the inventory.”
He said market forces and government aid to help producers hold onto breeding stock will likely lead to a smaller reduction in overall inventories than some have predicted.
“There is a lot of hype,” said Goodbrand.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be some tough times.
“If you’re a producer and you don’t have feed, it’s hard,” he said. “That’s a different conversation than the western Canadian beef industry.”
He said the years of unprofitability producers have gone through over the last five or six years is a bigger issue.
It’s that issue that concerns Aaron Fletcher when he ponders the future of the 100-cow herd on his ranch near Cereal, Alta.
Producers have taken on additional costs in recent years and with feed prices soaring, “you’re going to carry that debt for a long time.”
As for recently announced government aid, those dollars might not address the root problem.
“I don’t think so,” said Fletcher. “Money doesn’t solve the problem, it’s lack of feed.”
Fletcher said he grew only 20 percent of his normal feed, amounting to 83 bales of hay from 320 acres.
He said the future does not look bright.
“We’ll get through this year, but I don’t know after that.”
That sentiment was shared by Lynn Chotowetz, who ranches in Major, Sask.
“It’s decision point,” he said. “You really have to question whether it’s worth the effort.”
Even without this year’s challenges, land prices continue to rise, said Chotowetz, making it hard to imagine growing an operation.
“It’s not all doom and gloom but it’s not straightforward,” he said.
Goodbrand said he has heard and sympathizes with producers but advises ranchers not to throw in the towel yet. He said the industry is set for a rebound that might be clouded by current challenges.
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.