Double whammy: Second dry year hits forages hard

With pastures suffering and hay supplies tight and expensive, fallback strategies are needed

It’s already a tough situation for forages, and fears are mounting that it will get worse.

Ed Shaw.
photo: Supplied

“We went into the winter in very dry conditions. We have had some rains as of late, but with perennial forage crops, their production is pre-set from the year before,” said Ed Shaw, president and chief executive officer of IQ Forage and Feed in Olds.

Last year’s forage crops were set during last August, which was dry and smoky due to forest fires.

“We’re kind of compounded with several things in the forage industry that have got me a little bit worried,” said Shaw, a director with the Alberta Forage Industry Network, who runs a small farm near Carstairs.

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Last year, forage yields in Alberta were lower than normal, and the impact of that still lingers.

“There was no carry-over crop to start with, so forage was very scarce last year,” said Shaw. “We had a very warm winter up until January, which helped alleviate it, but February was very cold.”

With supplies tight, prices have soared. That’s put pressure on pastures.

“Pastures are just starting to kick in now, but people will be grazing pastures down because it will be short,” Shaw said in late May. “My personal feeling this year is that the drought is going to affect our pastures and our forages, our supply of hay and our production is going to be lower than normal. Feed is going to be very tight again, I think.”

About 75 per cent of the province is in “severe moisture deficiency,” provincial beef and forage specialist Barry Yaremcio told CBC.

Because of the shortage, Shaw estimates most hay is priced higher than $200 a bale.

“Hay is very expensive right now and in short supply,” he said.

Opportunities to bring in hay from other regions, always an expensive proposition, are limited because so much of the Prairies are suffering.

Rancher Graeme Finn travels around the province in his role as president of Union Forage. There are a lot of patchy, dry areas, he said.

“Forages are really struggling right now because we didn’t have enough moisture last year, so we’re running on reserves this year,” he said. “And not much reserves, either.”

He said he’s been telling many producers who want to improve pastures by putting more legumes into their perennial stands to hold off this year.

“What I’ve been suggesting this year for a lot of guys is to put a lot of sweet clover and oats in as a greenfeed or for swath grazing,” said Finn. “Keep it cheap for this year, then if we get more rain next year, we’ll seed perennials next year.

“We are working on the caution side more than anything else.”

Finn has already received phone calls from producers looking for pasture.

“It’s still early. I hope we get rain and I hope we get some moisture here, but they’re saying that we’re going to have a carbon copy of last year,” said Finn, who ranches near Madden.

He’s got a couple of management strategies that can help producers feeling the pinch.

One is to cull older cows.

“It’s a good year to save the feed for the replacements and the younger cow side of the herd,” he said.

Prices are decent for cow-calf pairs, so it might be a good idea to sell right now, he added.

Another strategy producers can use is to avoid seeding a nurse crop with perennials.

“Just put perennial grass and the legume stand in by itself,” he said, adding the nurse crop will take the moisture away from the perennials and leave a weakened perennial stand.

Producers might have to face the facts this year.

“Everything is leading to you’re not going to make as much money this year,” said Finn. “The proper line is the bottom line, not the top line. The further you can push that bottom line down, the more money you can make.

“Don’t go chasing the high-priced calves — go chasing the more efficient way of feeding cattle through the winter.”

Some pastures will suffer more than others during dry spells and there are always three reasons, he said — “overstocking, overstocking, overstocking.”

Too many cows result in overgrazing and even in good moisture years, that degrades pastures.

“It really helps not to pressure your land or soil too much,” he said. “You have to be practising every year for drought.

“Drought management doesn’t start today. It starts two or three years ago. It’s always something that is part of your management strategy on your farm.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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