The pastures and haylands around St. Laurent are bone dry and grasshoppers are eating what little green grows.

The pastures and haylands around St. Laurent are bone dry and grasshoppers are eating what little green grows.

If a soaker of a rainstorm doesn't come soon, it might be the death knell of the few family farmers left in the southern Interlake, says cattle producer Tom Johnson.

He grew up on the rocky 2,500 acres his grandfather bought in 1928 near Oak Point, 90 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. His land is a stone's throw from Lake Manitoba, a place where three generations have raised cattle and made a living.

"Guys are drilling wells and getting solar pumps to set up for (livestock) to drink... We could use three inches of rain here where I am, and the next day you wouldn't even see it. It would be gone," said Johnson, 63.

"Everything’s going to s--- in a showboat right quick. We’re going downhill fast."

Tom Johnson, a cattle farmer near Oak Point north of Winnipeg and other farmers are experiencing drought conditions.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tom Johnson, a cattle farmer near Oak Point north of Winnipeg and other farmers are experiencing drought conditions.

Rural Municipality of St. Laurent Reeve Cheryl Smith said the region has had about 40 per cent of the precipitation it does in a normal year.

It declared an agricultural state of disaster Monday, a move more RMs in the Interlake are expected to follow amid little rainfall and extensive insects feeding on crops.

Losing family farms would hurt the community — culturally and its tax base — Smith said. But it's not just St. Laurent farmers that are facing dire circumstances in the recent extreme heat and lack of rain.

Across southern Manitoba, livestock and crops are aching for water and a reprieve from the scorching heat.

"When we start to see some of the crops regress, with regards to their lush leaves, and some of that part of it, it causes concern about the ability to yield, and it has caused I would say irreversible damage to the crops," Keystone Agricultural Producers president Bill Campbell told the Brandon Sun this week.

Although "significant rainfall" would allow some crops the ability to "bounce back somewhat," he said they’ll never bounce back to what they might have been if not for drought conditions.

Across southern Manitoba, livestock and crops are aching for water and a reprieve from the scorching heat.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Across southern Manitoba, livestock and crops are aching for water and a reprieve from the scorching heat.

Cattle producers in western Manitoba are deciding whether to thin their herds.

Walking through his field Saturday, Miniota area cattle farmer Ryan Canart said the grass around him was burning up.

"It’s not looking pretty. I think hay and feed is going to be worth a lot of money in the fall and a lot of guys looking to downsize cattle herds or selling or whatever," he told the Sun.

South of Brandon, Keystone vice-president Jake Ayre said the area he farms has had well-below average rainfall, but agricultural producers are always working under the whims of the weather.

"Maybe we get two inches (of rain) next week or four tomorrow. It's the name of the game we're in," Ayre said.

He said the provincial and federal supports and resources for producers are adequate; farmers are getting the help they need. But they still need help from Mother Nature.

Johnson checks on a water dugout for his cattle on his farm near Oak Point.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Johnson checks on a water dugout for his cattle on his farm near Oak Point.

Interlake farmers, with little water in wells or dugouts and no hay to cut, are now deciding whether to spend cash they don't have to spare on new wells and freighting in expensive hay — or to just sell their cattle or sheep.

Johnson said one bale costs about $150 to $200 right now, plus the cost of trucking it in.

"The farmers will just dump their cows. Some have already started dumping. The cattle will be gone out of the area — who knows if they’ll come back? The little guys like us are really going to hurt," said Johnson, who runs a cow-and-calf operation with 125 animals and cuts hay.

"I don't know what a steak would cost if all these guys went out and down the road."

Johnson said farmers need more support.

"They got to do something if they want to keep us around," he said of potential support for hay costs and well drilling from the province and federal governments.

The pastures and haylands around St. Laurent are bone dry and grasshoppers are eating what little green grows.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The pastures and haylands around St. Laurent are bone dry and grasshoppers are eating what little green grows.

The province announced water management supports and resources Monday, and its hay listing service is active.

One of Johnson's three sons plans to take over the family farm; instead of leaving for work on the pipelines, he stayed this summer. The father and son jerry-rigged water troughs and drilled wells — two this year.

It'll be 100 years of Johnsons on the land in 2028, if they can make it that far.

The industry has dwindled in St. Laurent, the elder Johnson said. When he was a child, everyone had cattle. Now there's a handful of small family operations and bigger producers dotting the area.

There's one dairy farm; there used to be a dozen.

Ayre, who grows wheat, barley and other cash crops, thinks the family farm won't die in the keystone province, even if it's a tough year.

"I truly feel for producers who are stressed," he said of the hardship of bad weather. "(But) we've seen younger producers come back in Manitoba. There's a generation coming back to farming."

— with files from Brandon Sun

erik.pindera@freepress.mb.ca

Erik Pindera
Multimedia producer

Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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