Record-setting temperatures in mid-August have added pressure to an already desperate situation for cattle producers across Alberta.
“There are some people who are going to be really short on feed and pasture,” Alberta Beef Producers executive director Rich Smith said in mid-August.
“Some people are in a really tough situation. The heat last week was hard on everything.”
Paltry soil moisture reserve this spring meant timely rain showers were badly needed. But they’ve been meagre and spotty with unrelenting heat hammering many — particularly the south, said Smith.
“It’s such a variable year across the province,” he said. “We’ve got a good chunk of the province that is near-normal precipitation and areas that are way below normal.”
As a result, hay and silage yields have been variable as well, but some estimates put hay yields 25 to 40 per cent lower than average and silage yields 30 per cent below average. Crop quality has also suffered. According to the Aug. 14 crop report from Alberta Agriculture, only 22 per cent of pasture was rated good or better. Save for irrigated land, haying is done as it’s been too dry for a second cut (and less than half of the first cut was rated as good quality).
However, in the frequently dry Peace Country, 80 per cent of pastures are rated good or better. Nearly three-quarters of central Alberta pastures received that rating but second-cut hay was poor as it was in the northwest and northeast — and those areas also have vast stretches of dried-out pastures.
“Some areas got some moisture, and that helps. But there are some areas that haven’t got moisture at all,” said Smith.
Reduced quality and yields are pushing prices up, he added.
“Prices are pretty high. As people get more and more desperate to find feed locally, that tends to drive prices up,” said Smith. “There are parts of Alberta where feed supplies aren’t too bad. But if you’re not living in those areas, it can be pretty expensive to bring feed in.”
That’s what Patrick Kunz has seen on his mixed operation near Beiseker.
“Hay around here is selling for $250 a tonne all day long. You put it up and it’s gone,” said Kunz, who farms with his brother and father.
“You can’t have a cow-calf operation and feed that kind of hay free choice.”
Hay prices in that area have peaked at $290 a tonne — a far cry from the usual $100 to $150. It’s “crazy” to feed cows hay that’s priced so high, said Kunz, who runs a 2,000-head feedlot and 85-head cow-calf herd in addition to 2,000 acres of grain.
“At this price, I just can’t pencil it,” he said. “Actually, it doesn’t require a pencil or a calculator to figure out it’s too high. So I’m not going to be feeding that much hay.”
Instead, he’ll use “a little bit of creativity.”
“People have a sense of dread because there isn’t much feed around, but there are options out there — you’ve just got to look for them.”
He’ll be feeding a maximum of 10 pounds of hay a day during lactation only, but even at that point, he’ll be feeding mostly barley straw supplemented with a bit of barley (though his silage yields were down).
“It doesn’t take much barley. At the peak when we started calving, it was about three pounds a head a day max,” he said.
“That’s not that much, but it actually helped cheapen up the ration even more.”
But the key to nailing down the right ration — one that balances the nutritional needs of the cattle with the feed budget — has been working with a nutritionist.
“That’s pretty important. If you’re going to control costs, you have to know what you’re feeding and then manage it.”
Kunz also bunk feeds, which makes it easier to manage what the cows are actually eating.
“We’ve managed to reduce feed costs drastically that way — we’ve cut them in half by not feeding hay out in the field,” he said, adding there is a trade-off with higher labour requirements.
“If you shred it and put it into bunks and manage it, you can probably still feed cheaper than a guy who has hay at half the price but is just putting bales out in the field.”
And while culling his herd isn’t yet on his radar, he thinks it’s “not a bad option” for producers who are running into serious feed shortages.
“Everybody has cows that they need to get rid of anyway,” he said. “It’s not a bad idea to make your herd a little bit younger, a little bit leaner, a little more efficient.
“If you can get rid of those big old cows that are eating you out of house and home, you can make a heck of a difference really quickly.”
It’s getting close to decision time for producers on whether to cull or sell off animals, said Smith.
“There will be some people who will be stretched, and in extreme cases, there will be people who have to reduce the size of their herd,” said Smith. “We never like to see people being forced into selling animals because of the weather. But there is some risk of that.”
But the sector is stuck in wait-and-see mode as the grain crop harvest gets underway. Initial estimates place the provincial dryland grain yield at six per cent below the five-year average, with yields in southern Alberta 25 per cent below average. But grain quality is still up in the air, so it’s hard to say what proportion of the crop will hit the feed market.
“It’s not a fully clear situation yet,” said Smith. “Sometimes you have crops that turn into feed, so it’s difficult to tell how it’s going to look. We don’t have a crystal ball.”
Alberta Beef Producers has been in discussions with provincial ag officials about relief for those struggling to find feed or who may have to sell some cattle.
“As time goes on and we learn more about the full extent of the trouble, we’re going to be moving forward with some requests for assistance,” said Smith.
“We’re hopeful the government will recognize those challenges and take action to try and help. At this stage, there haven’t been any programs announced, so we’re still waiting to see what will happen there.”
One such program is the federal Livestock Tax Deferral Provision, which allows farmers to sell part of their breeding herd due to drought or flooding and then defer a portion of sale proceeds to the following year.
“We don’t want producers to end up with a big tax burden if they’re forced to sell animals they weren’t planning to sell,” said Smith.
But 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.
“We’re trying to see if we can figure out a strategic approach to providing assistance to those people who are hit the hardest,” said Smith, adding it’s important for producers to get in touch with their elected officials about the situation.
“Dry conditions are something that people are pretty familiar with, and producers are pretty resilient and resourceful. But their provincial and municipal elected officials need to know if they’re struggling.”
“People are in a bad spot, so if there’s some relief, that’s great,” he said. “But farmers are a lot more resilient than they give themselves credit for. I think people will get through this.”
– With staff files