Farmers are calling for emergency disaster relief as drought ravages crops and pastures across the Prairie provinces and beyond.

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This article was published 16/7/2021 (347 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Farmers are calling for emergency disaster relief as drought ravages crops and pastures across the Prairie provinces and beyond.

In Manitoba, a farmer coalition group in association with Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) is busy working on contingency plans in case conditions don’t improve.

It’s likely the modest rainfall in southern Manitoba on Thursday afternoon will not be enough to mitigate the effects of the scorching temperatures and scant rainfall over the past few weeks that have left crops in poor condition across wide swaths of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Graham Schellenberg, an official with KAP, said, "It is to the point, while we’re not saying it’s too late (for this year’s crop), but certainly we have seen stunted crop growth, issues with germination going back to the spring and it has been a very difficult year for livestock producers."

In some parts of the country, grasshoppers have infested fields. Several municipalities have declared states of agricultural disaster and ranchers say they are running out of hay to feed their cattle.

Schellenberg said some Manitoba livestock producers, who are struggling to find enough water and feed for their animals, are getting close to the point where they will need to make decisions about whether or not to use their crops for feed rather than sending it to market.

"Farmers are always hoping and praying for rain," he said. "But it is now to the point with these consistent high temperatures, high humidex and lack of precipitation where producers are having to start considering options."

On his ranch near Moose Jaw, Sask., Kelcy Elford said conditions are the driest he’s seen in more than 20 years. Much of the crop he planted for grazing didn’t germinate at all and the parched soil is cracking. Watering holes on his land are either going dry or are algae-covered, and some have become so alkaline they’re actually poisonous to cattle.

"When you look over some of the pastures it’s a brown, almost gold colour. Because the grass that did grow here cooked after it grew," said Elford, who is president of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association. "In the areas where it’s quite bad it almost looks grey. There’s just no moisture there whatsoever."

Drought conditions are also causing problems in western Ontario and in B.C., where active wildfires are significantly impacting agricultural producers.

Brady Stadnicki, spokesman for national lobby group the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said the situation is so widespread there are concerns it could result in a long-term reduction in the size of the Canadian cattle herd. He said the CCA is hearing reports from ranchers across the country who say they may have to sell off up to 40 per cent of their herds before winter because they know they won’t have enough food for them.

"We’re hearing there’s some hay that isn’t even being sold at a price. It’s going for auction because it’s so valuable," Stadnicki said. "There’s really big implications for the industry here. That’s a huge priority for us, to maintain that national cow herd."

The government of Saskatchewan has already announced some drought relief, and will allow grain farmers with crop insurance to write off crops that have been damaged by sun and heat.

Cattle ranchers will then be able to go in and salvage what they can for feed. Saskatchewan is also providing more funding for water projects like wells and dugouts.

The CCA and other farm groups are pushing for other provinces to follow suit. They are also calling for emergency relief funding through the AgriRecovery framework, a federal-provincial disaster assistance program. The country’s agriculture ministers were set to discuss that issue at a federal-provincial-territorial meeting Thursday.

Dean Hubbard, who farms near Claresholm in southern Alberta, said the temperature hit 36 Celsius on his property on June 30 and is forecast to hit that same eye-popping number on Monday. There is no rain expected in at least the next 10 days.

"Our peas at this point have very few pods, and they’re so short I’m not sure how anyone would harvest them. The spring wheat is quite thin and very short," Hubbard said. "There’s been no other year like this."

Hubbard said in some parts of Alberta, even if rain comes now, it will be too late to salvage much of the crop.

This summer’s drought follows multiple consecutive years of below-normal precipitation in many parts of farm country. Experts say severe weather events will become more common in years to come due to climate change.

— with files from The Canadian Press

Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.