Alberta’s main cattle group is warning the provincial government to stand ready as a severe feed shortage could soon lead to a major culling of herds.
Many ranchers depleted their hay stocks after a cold spring delayed pasture growth, and have seen only meagre production this summer in the face of dry, hot conditions, said Charlie Christie, chair of Alberta Beef Producers.
“In some areas, conditions are quite extreme,” said Christie. “Things are on the tipping point on whether it’s going to be a really tough winter to carry cows or whether it will be an impossible one.”
That prompted Christie to contact Alberta Agriculture and Forestry to warn officials that assistance programs may be needed soon.
“We just felt it was time to make sure the awareness was there so if, in fact, we need to ask for some sort of assistance, perhaps the ball will get rolling a little quicker,” he said.
“I can’t say what the ask might be because we don’t know how serious the situation might be. But I think there will be producers who liquidate herds — not whole herds, but part of them.”
One program that can help those who have to sell off cattle because they don’t have enough feed is the Livestock Tax Deferral Provision. That federal program allows farmers who sell part of their breeding herd due to drought or flooding to defer a portion of sale proceeds to the following year. Last year, drought prompted Ottawa to designate the southern half of the province — nearly 30 counties and municipal districts — as “prescribed” regions eligible for the program. But the situation may be considerably worse this year. As of the end of July, almost all of the pasture land in the province in the south, east and central regions along with the northern Peace are bone dry.
Deferring income from a herd reduction dictated by drought is only common sense, said Christie.
“If you have to sell two calf crops in one year and then sell off a chunk of your cow herd to get through, that’s an artificially high income,” he said. “And then the next year is really tough.”
Deferring the income from sales not only reduces the tax bill in the current year but also in the following one for producers who restock their herds.
There are other tools that government can employ to help producers struggling to feed their herds. Those include allowing grazing on public lands, haying along roadsides, feed freight assistance, and “drought disaster” loans.
“The programs are there, but getting them triggered takes some time,” said Christie. “We wanted the awareness there, so we’re not knocking on the door for the first time when the crisis is already on top of us.”
The call to the government was also intended to encourage producers to reach out if they’re running out of feed, he added.
That’s especially important for younger producers, he said.
“Experience means a lot at a time like this,” he said. “Most young producers are coming into an established operation, so there’s lots of experience there already. Yeah, it’s tough on everybody but it’s particularly tough on a young producer who has made a big investment and is probably highly leveraged.”
But young or old, producers being squeezed by drought shouldn’t be afraid to seek help, said Christie.
“They just have to reach out and ask — this industry is pretty good at helping each other out if they can.”