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Dry weather forecasts a season of hard choices

With pastures burning up and the forage harvest a fraction of normal, cattle producers are searching for affordable feed alternatives while considering how many cattle they must sell

Mike Duguid knew it would be a tough year for feed in the spring while he was assessing the winterkill in his alfalfa and poor pasture growth on his Interlake farm.

“Some of the grasses had windburn and there was no moisture,” the Camp Morton-area producer said. “Lots of grasses require more moisture than southern parts of the province, for example; we’ve got cool-season grasses in the Interlake. We looked at it and actually seeded some poor hay land. We put some grain in it so we can harvest that for feed.”

The Interlake has seen some of Manitoba’s driest conditions in what has generally been a dry summer across the province. Gimli, just south of Camp Morton, has seen only 54 per cent of the rainfall in a normal year, according to Manitoba Agriculture, and Duguid’s land is dry enough that he is pumping water into his dugouts to keep levels up.

That proactive planning paid off. Duguid still expects to cull a little harder than usual going into autumn and bring in more straw. But by cutting grain for silage to make up for the poor forage growth this year, he feels his feed supply will carry his herd through.

Similar stories are emerging across the province as farmers brace for both a hard cull and hardball prices in the feed market.

Experts now predict farmers will have to pull cattle from pastures or supplement feed starting this month. Meanwhile, many first-cut yields of hay hovered around half of normal or less and no second cut in sight.

Prices have already jumped. Manitoba Agriculture’s hay listing service lists hay from two cents a pound to eight cents a pound or above, while the public Facebook group, Manitoba Hay and Feed for Buy/Sell, has featured hay at 12 cents a pound off the field.

The expected cattle cull has some analysts voicing concerns over the future of the bred cow market, and most are predicting an early start to the fall calf run.

Dilemma

Duguid said the dilemma of whether to sell more cows or bring in more feed at premium prices is made even more difficult by transportation costs.

The province has already urged producers to consider turning crops to greenfeed or silage if they are short on forage, while other producers have suggested their fellow farmers bale corn stover (something more common in the U.S.), graze crop residue or look at strategies such as corn grazing.

David Koroscil, MASC manager of claim services, says about 98,000 acres of corn silage were planted this year, up from 73,000 acres the year before and much higher than the 65,000 acres in 2014.

Part of that increase is likely due to the dry conditions, he said, although corn silage was already on an upward trend.

It is hard to say how many acres were switched from grain to greenfeed mid-season, he added.

“Every year, we have producers who will plant oats and decide they want to cut and bale part of that,” he said. “They do that specifically. Some years they might not need to do that at all, but in a year like this, then they’ve got it to fall back on for feed. We’re at a stage right now where we don’t really have a means of tracking it in terms of number of producers or the number of acres that they’re going to end up cutting.”

MASC has also received 98 forage insurance claims this year, although Koroscil expects that number to jump in fall. Producers have until the end of September to file their claim. Most claims will not come in until hay harvest is done.

“These 98, I would suggest that they know already that they’re going to be short or they’re in a pocket where there was absolutely no regrowth, because we haven’t had enough rain,” he said.

Nancy Howatt of Manitou says she is also getting creative with her feed stock this year, although her situation is not as dire as her neighbours to the north and west, many of whom will have to downsize their herds.

Like Duguid, Howatt estimates she harvested half of her normal hay crop, although dry conditions have also given a silver lining.

Lack of moisture has dried down sloughs on her land, opening up new areas for baling, and Howatt says her farm has taken full advantage of the chance.

Oat straw will also play a critical role in getting her herd through the winter, although she, like many other producers has noted tight straw supplies.

“We’re going to top dress it with the molasses, or Mol-Mix, is what they call it, and it’s got the protein and all your vitamins and minerals, and we blend that with our corn silage, which is high in energy, and this will hopefully have enough protein to keep the cattle in mid-gestation for wintering,” she said. “That kind of stretches out our feed supply too.”

Others in her area plan to turn to slough hay and pellets to fill in feed.

Provincial extension staff have urged producers to consult a nutritionist, given the scramble for feed solutions.

Also a feed tech for the Border Agricultural Stewardship Association, Howatt has heard reports of higher nitrate levels in feed due to heat and drought, although her own testing season is just getting underway.

“Make sure you know what your feed is,” she said. “It might look good, but it might not have anything in it. You have to feed test to know what you’re giving them.”

Time for government to step in?

Brian Lemon, Manitoba Beef Producers general manager, said MBP wrote a letter to the provincial government in July.

“We were careful not to necessarily push the panic button, because we recognized ourselves that the weather could turn and things could turn around and we weren’t in a position, we didn’t think, in early July to say, this is a really devastating situation yet. Now the last month has gone by and it continues to be dry, so we are certainly getting a lot closer to it being very, very critical,” Lemon said.

The letter highlighted previous provincial programs such as subsidized feed transportation, tax deferrals for cull cow sales and support for well-digging equipment. A livestock tax deferral would allow producers that have culled their herd due to drought to defer part of that sale to the following year for tax purposes.

A cull would set back efforts to grow the herd, MBP also wrote, and would work against the government’s set goal of returning cattle numbers to what they were before the BSE crisis.

The government released an information document soon after, reminding producers of existing resources, including insurance programs and government hay listings.

As of press time, the provincial government had not responded to a request for comment.

Producers to the west are already pressing the federal government to change the national Livestock Tax Deferral program for 2018. In an Aug. 15 letter, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan asked the federal government to open the program up to producers without special designated areas and to accelerate the timeline of the program.

Currently, forage yields must fall below half of the long-term average yield for AAFC to designate that region as eligible, while producers in that zone must have cut their breeding herd by at least 15 per cent to qualify. Last year, a large swath of the Prairies qualified for the deferral, although no regions in Manitoba made the cut.

AAFC typically releases a preliminary list of eligible regions by early fall.

Lemon said he has not yet seen the letter, although he supports moving up the timeline for the program.

“One of the things that we look at when we look at the tax deferral program is the responsiveness of it,” he said. “Why do we have to wait until it’s too late or why do we have to wait so long to find out whether or not it’s going to be an option for us? If there are structural changes or program changes where those decisions can be made quicker and sooner, we would be all for that.”

Lemon expects the dry conditions to feature strongly in MBP board meetings at the end of August.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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