DISASTER: Hope dries up along with the pastures and fields

Everyone is hurting but the fallout for the cattle sector may be felt for years to come

You can’t see the heat in this July 14 photo but the meagre cut of hay from this field west of Okotoks is clearly visible along the smoke from wildfires  in B.C. drifting in over the Rocky Mountains. And this area actually has received more moisture than ones to the south and east.
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Melanie Wowk. photo: Supplied

The effect of the arid spring and the blistering July heatwave will be felt “for years to come.”

“On a scale of one to 10, I’d put this at a 10 — it’s extremely severe,” said Melanie Wowk, chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

“The herd will shrink — not just out of this province, but out of the four western provinces and western Ontario. We’re talking about large numbers of cattle liquidating.

“People I’ve spoken to say they’re looking at moving anything from one-third of their herd to possibly all of it.”

And it’s not just the cows and their genetics that will be lost, but it could also be the people. Producers facing disaster this year will be wondering if this might be the start of a two-year trainwreck — and whether it’s worth it to try and hang on, said Wowk.

“This is going to affect us for years to come,” she said. “We won’t be able to stockpile any feed. Will the pastures come back? Will we get runoff in the spring? Will we get rain then? I don’t know.

“If we don’t — I don’t even want to think about what will happen if we don’t.”

Auction marts were already seeing more cull cows than usual in May and June — and July brought in a lot more cattle, said Chance Martin, president of Alberta Auction Mart Association and owner of Thorsby Stockyards.

“Usually July is our slowest month, but we’ve surpassed last year’s totals already in July, and we still have two or three sales left,” he said on July 19.

“We’re basically moving normal August cattle now, and in August, we’ll be seeing September-type cattle from guys who usually hold off longer.”

Growth halted

Rod Vergouwen. photo: Supplied

It was already “pretty grim” in early July, said Rod Vergouwen, who operates Valley View Ranch near Strathmore and is chair of the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association.

“The heatwave really just shut down all the crops, the grasses and the dryland hay,” he said during the first week of July. “At our own place, we have some dryland hay, and it’s a mixture of alfalfa and grass. The alfalfa was pretty short and went to flower early and stopped its upward growth.

“The grass came, and the heat turned (on) and it just kind of went back down again. Our stockpile is really limited right now.”

Initially, Alberta Beef Producers, its Prairie counterparts and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association were talking to governments about triggering the tax deferral program early. That allows producers in designated municipalities who are forced to sell livestock to defer that income into the following year. That deferred income can then be offset by the purchase of replacement breeding stock in the following year.

But that only happens if you can hang on and want to get back in the game and rebuild the herd in 2022. So much will depend on what happens with the government’s emergency farm support program, AgriRecovery.

Discussions in early July about maybe triggering that program quickly moved past the preliminary stage as fields and pastures baked in the searing heat. On July 15, the federal ag minister — at the request of her Prairie counterparts — agreed to invoke the program. However, details of what kind of support will be on offer aren’t likely to be known for several weeks as provincial and federal officials consult with livestock and grain groups and others in the ag sector.

But it’s not just the financial stress.

“Our other big concern right now is just how this is affecting producers in regards to mental health,” said Wowk. “Coming out of COVID-19 and moving into a drought situation — you can hear the frustration and the worry in a lot of peoples’ voices.

“That (helping people deal with the stress) is another thing that is top priority, to try and recognize what is happening there as well.”

Hay pricey, water scarce

Across the province, beef producers are estimating what feed they’ll have and pencilling out what they’ll need.

“Even before the heatwave, we were going to be short on the grass side for sure,” said Chris Israelson, who runs a cow-calf operation, background feedyard and grass cattle near Didsbury.

Chris Israelson says “we will do anything we can to maintain the cow herd” on his operation but it’s widely expected that many producers are going to have to sell cattle because their pastures have dried up and it’s too expensive to bring in feed this early in the year. photo: Supplied

Hay prices are already up. During the winter, hay was about $80 to $90 a tonne, but had reached $200 or more in southern Alberta by early July, said Israelson

Water availability is also an issue. Dugouts and potholes are drying up, and there are problems with water availability in pastures, he said.

Vergouwen runs yearlings and will take them off the rotational grazing pastures and then put them on dryland hay — but the yields are way down.

“There’s just nothing there. There will be a huge shortage,” he said.

There will also be a reduction on available annuals which will affect the availability of straw.

“That’s going to be another thing out there, and another reduction in our feed stocks as well,” said Vergouwen.

“Guys are going to have to start trucking it in or find alternative solutions. Around our place, there are potholes that have never seen it dry, and there’s just no water.”

Water quality is also a concern.

“With these high temperatures, I saw there were blue-green algae warnings for certain lakes in Alberta already,” Wowk, a retired livestock veterinarian, said in an earlier interview on July 7. “Blue-green algae will kill cattle. We’ve got to keep our eye on our water sources and make sure they are healthy.”

In areas with salty soils, small bodies of water can get too salty, she added.

“That’s something you’ve got to keep on the radar when it’s this hot and dry. Cows that are milking right now need a good water supply and if they don’t get it, their calf weaning weight will be affected in the fall.”

Feeding alternatives

Those trying to hold onto as much of their herd as possible will have to do the math on feed costs, said Vergouwen.

“You’ve got to run your numbers for feed availability as for what it’s going to cost to keep those cattle over the winter,” he said “You can’t feed yourself out of a drought. It’s really, really expensive.”

It puts tremendous pressure on individuals when they’re trying to decide whether or not to depopulate the herd, said Israelson.

He said if he needs to destock, it will be the yearlings that head off the ranch first — something that Martin hadn’t seen a lot of so far.

“Luckily, the yearling market has stayed pretty steady,” he said. “The market is pretty decent, so that’s making it not quite as big of a wreck if you’re forced to sell them.”

Israelson’s priority is keeping the herd intact.

“We will do anything we can to maintain the cow herd,” he said. “If we need to start feeding early, we will.”

Another option is to move the herd to the land of friends who have had better rains in west-central Alberta.

Using cereals — either as greenfeed or silage — could be an option so Vergouwen recommends cattle producers reach out to their grain farming neighbours.

“If crops get written off because there’s no yield, it just doesn’t make economic sense just to combine them,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity for your grain farming neighbour to put a little money back in his pocket and recycle some nutrients to stay in the ground.

“That’s a good strategy.”

A tough outlook

It’s not lost on anyone that this blow to the ag sector comes after a very challenging time.

“We learned a lot of lessons through COVID,” said Wowk. “We’re going to learn a lesson from this, but we’re woefully unprepared.

“Maybe we would have been okay if this was just Alberta or just Saskatchewan. But being over half the country and half the United States, we’re not prepared.”

That sets the stage for another decline in the national cattle herd, which has fallen by 25 per cent since its numbers peaked in 2005. Last year, the herd in Western Canada fell by 1.7 per cent to 8.2 million head.

Wowk said she worries we might be facing a much larger drop in the year ahead

“Whether producers, even with the livestock tax deferral, depending on what kind of prices they get on these cattle now, will they be willing to jump back in?” she said. “We have an aged producer population. I can’t see it happening with a lot of people.”


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.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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