Alberta Beef Producers is gathering the facts on the feed shortage in the province and preparing a case for government aid for drought-stricken ranchers.
But although the federal government has now made much of the province eligible for its tax deferral program, direct aid is unlikely, said ABP chair Charlie Christie.
“My gut feeling right now is that there won’t be much the government will be able to do because we’re going to fall short of the technical numbers to define a disaster,” he said. “I hate saying that because there are areas that are definitely a disaster.”
Part of the challenge in making a case for aid is that the moisture situation this summer was extremely variable despite the overall dry conditions — some got timely rains and decent production, others got little or nothing, and many fell somewhere in between.
However, producers are also showing their resilience, both in downsizing their herd in a timely fashion and finding alternative feed.
“What we’re seeing and hearing anecdotally is that a lot of the industry is being very creative with what they’re doing,” said Christie.
Justin Blades, who ranches near Nanton with his parents, sister, and brother-in-law, is one of those ranchers. His family runs about 800 cows.
“Last week, we sold all our non-breeders and our older cows and weaned calves,” he said in an interview in mid-September.
In total, the Blades sent 42 cows to market a couple of months earlier than usual.
“That gives 50 head for two months or we could run 100 head for a month more on the grass that they eat,” he said. “We’re going to sell our steer calves also, which we usually feed ourselves.”
The Blades have only done that once before.
Fortunately, the family has three different sections of land, and some of their land has more grass than others.
“The stuff to the west of where our main ranch is has actually been getting quite a bit of rain,” said Blades. “I would say there we haven’t had much drought effects. But here at the main place, we’ve definitely grown a lot less forage than we usually do.”
His neighbours have also been discussing their strategies as hay in the area has been selling for about $200 a tonne in the field.
“We’ve bought some of that. In my math, I have a hard time pencilling that out to make much of a profit,” he said.
Blades has bought most of the forage for his cows already, but is looking for alternative feeds for his calves. He’s looking at selling the calves to a feedlot, but not liking the results he sees there.
For Blades and many others, this is the second year of drought.
“Last year, I think we were worse than we are this year because our forage reserve at our other place has been getting substantial moisture,” he said.
Christie said many cows are coming to market already, and he expects that trend to continue. At his place, he’s changing his management up a bit.
“We’re going to wean our calves soon and we’re likely going to market them sooner,” he said. “This year, without feed, we will likely preg check and get rid of open cows right away.”
Feed prices seem set to remain high, he added.
“We are hoping to see some relief from the barley prices, but that doesn’t appear to be. I think the barley prices will remain strong,” he said.
Cereal crops have fared better than grazing crops in areas of low moisture, so that may reduce another potential feed source.
And Christie’s thoughts are already turning to next year.
“My hope here on my own operation, and in Alberta, is for the grass,” he said. “If we don’t get that moisture that can get down to the root before freeze-up and we’re relying on run-off, that just delays it until next spring. I’m concerned about the feed next spring.
“While we may be able to get through the winter, we may have an extended feeding season next spring. That’s not for sure, but it’s sure shaping up that way.”
Christie knows of people near him who are going outside of their area in search of feed. He also knows that Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is assessing things to see if people will need support.
“When we do talk to the government, we talk about how it’s a back-to-back situation. You have to take into consideration what happened last year to make the situation worse than it is, what you’re measuring. There was no reserve of feed or moisture.
“Once the numbers are in, then we’ll know, and it won’t be quick enough for some people.”
All of this leaves many livestock producers in a very difficult spot.
“I know there are people who are going to need something,” said Christie. “They’re going to have to make some tough decisions. But we’re going to dig. There will be people who don’t meet the requirements. If they do, we’ll be digging in and trying to get something. I’m certain it won’t be province-wide.”
The situation is difficult because it’s so variable. Moisture levels vary even within a county.
Christie has asked his board members to contact their counties and gather as much detail about the situation in their area as they can.
For example, he’s heard stories of bales ranging from $60 to $250 for a big round bale.
“There’s lots of hay moving on the highway. You see trucks every day,” he said.
Pellets have also taken off in price, due to demand.
“People have to make decisions of what they can afford and if it is cheaper to sell that cow and start over the next year, or if they want to hold on to her,” said Christie. “We’re going to hang on to the cows, but not the feeder cattle and take it a little easier this winter.”
He anticipates there will be a lot of calves going to town sooner as producers do what they can to deal with the feed shortage.
Alberta Beef Producers is already working on proposals for better insurance for forage and grazing because the current products aren’t working. It has been meeting and working with the Agricultural Financial Services Corporation to create a new program.
“You get a year like this when the hay price takes off and the insurance you get on your hay land doesn’t take that into account,” he said. “If anything good comes out of this, this demonstrates how important it is to get this thing working properly.”