Manitoba’s drought has caused many cattle farmers to sell their herds and forage producers to raise their prices.
"I think it’s a … realistic number that at least 20 per cent of the cow herd will go out of all operations," said Andre Steppler, the director of District 3 for the Manitoba Beef Producers.
Steppler has been in the beef industry since he was a child. Steppler Farms, his family’s, has been around for a century.
He’s watching farmers take their herds to auction in July. The cows are sold to be made into meat.
"That is very troubling," Steppler said. "This is so early in the cycle for these producers to be making that decision, to sell their whole cow herd."
Normally, cattle graze in pastures until late October or early November, Steppler said. But there’s a shortage of feed, and what’s available is expensive. Wells, springs and creeks have gone dry, removing those water sources for animals.
Larry Wegner cut the number of cattle he grazes in half last fall. His farm in Virden, Man., has had a lack of moisture for four years. He recognized last August he’d be short on forage this year.
"We would not have been able to handle the 150 more pairs that we normally graze," Wegner said. "We would’ve been in serious trouble."
Wegner is the chair of the Manitoba Forage & Grassland Association. He said forage prices — like the cost of hay — have doubled from last year.
"Even if we get rain now, we will not have enough … pasture or feed available for this fall and winter, for the number of cattle there are in Manitoba," Wegner said.
Jürgen Kohler, who farms near Brunkild, can produce up to 4,000 small square hay bales and 40 round bales in a good year. This year, he’s gotten 400 square bales out of a field that usually elicits 1,000.
"The cracks are so big, you could actually break your ankle if you don’t watch out in the field — that’s how dry it is," Kohler said.
He hasn’t raised his prices yet. However, if fuel, twine, labour and other production expenses increase, then Kohler said he might have to up what he’s charging.
"We’re in an agricultural disaster here," Kohler said, adding that he’s turned down several regular customers due to a lack of hay.
Rain is necessary now for next year’s forage, Wegner said.
"We’re saying right now: if we do not see a green-up by Sept. 15 — like, the pastures and hay land turn green — we will not see an increase in production next year," he said. "We’ll probably see a decrease in production for next year."
The MFGA is working with the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation to determine which crops have been spoiled in the drought but can be used for animal feed.
Wegner said the MFGA, along with other farmer organizations, have been updating the province weekly and collaborating on a drought response.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced government initiatives to help cattle farmers on July 21. They include the Livestock Tax Deferral — which will allows producers who’ve sold their herd to defer some of their income to the 2022 tax year — and changes to AgriInsurance.
Steppler, from the Manitoba Beef Producers, said farmers won’t buy feed and jeopardize their financial situations further if they don’t know whether they’ll be reimbursed or have a safety net.
"(Government support is) virtually giving the backing to the producers to be able to go forward and buy the crop," he said.
Ralph Eichler replaced Blaine Pedersen as the minister of agriculture and resource development on July 15.
"My first priority will be working with industry and other levels of government to see how we can be of assistance to impacted producers," Eichler said in a written statement.
He said he requested an AgriRecovery assessment from Ottawa.
Crops will be affected by extreme weather more often in the coming decades, according to Danny Blair, co-director of the Prairie Climate Centre.
"More frequent high temperatures and dry weather will likely produce low yields more often," Blair said in a written statement.
The drought, mixed with the COVID-19 pandemic, has damaged farmers’ mental health, Steppler said. Furthermore, there could be implications to the beef supply chain — even five years down the line — because farmers are taking out their production cows now, he said.
He predicts a decrease in local beef in the coming years.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.