There are few things more stressful than owning livestock while knowing available feed and water may run out over a prairie winter.
Drought hurts grain producers’ pocketbooks but when feed is in short supply or of poor quality, it’s about more than money for stock growers.
Insurance, risk management tools, bank loans — and a few dollars diverted from that account you hoped you’d leave for the kids — might pull you through the toughest times on the farm. Dreams can be delayed but chore time comes every day.
Herds are developed over years of selection and care, so it’s much more than a business decision to reduce stock when resources run out. Worse, avoiding the hard choices means short-rationing the herd, feeding straw and pricey proteins.
When the cold calls for calories, it’s no place producers want to find themselves or their animals. No day is colder than when the snow blows through an empty feedyard.
Most droughts are regional and short-lived. This one was widespread and lasted through the forage growing season.
It was so large that the American treasury was enlisted to help U.S. ranchers snatch up forages in Canada. The U.S. government is paying 60 to 90 percent of US$6.60 per mile for shipping hay distances of up to 1,000 miles. Last week the program was extended from Idaho to Wisconsin. American producers are paying $250 to $300 per ton for hay, competing with Canadian ranchers for short supplies.
Late autumn rains failed to wash away the drought’s damage to pastures for many Canadian producers. With only a few months of feed on hand, at best, they face critical culling before freeze-up.
Now some livestock producers are seeing a bit of hope on the highway’s horizon. It’s coming in the form of eastern Canadian hay.
The amounts provided might not be enough to carry all the cows until spring grass sprouts but loads of hay from Eastern Canada are arriving in the West. Tandem programs, both called Hay West, are shifting forages from Central Canada to the Prairies at more affordable prices.
The generosity of eastern farmers and transport companies echoes that of western farmers who shipped hay eastward in another troublesome year, 2012, and of eastern farmers who shared hay with the West in 2002.
In all those cases, farmers gave a hand to their neighbours 3,000 kilometres up the road. While federal politics this month highlighted divisions within this country, farmers showed the shared concerns and generosity possible within the agricultural community. They can and do “pay it forward” when times are tough.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s Hay West program finds surplus forage in Central Canada and puts it on west-bound trucks. The feed is available for 10 cents per pound, with costs underwritten by the federal government.
The other Hay West program is organized by the Mennonite Disaster Service. Its strong ties to agricultural producers make it well-positioned to provide affordable forage. They plan for 50 truckloads.
Neither program is large enough to replace what has been or will be lost from 2021’s dry times, but it will make some producers’ decisions easier. Both Hay West programs lighten the burdens of feeling isolated or alone when the snow blows through the feedyard.
And it might hydrate a few eyes in the men and women who stand at the end of long, dusty lanes when the hay-bearing trucks arrive.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.
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.