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Drought Could Sharply Thin Alberta Herd

Drought could force Alberta ranchers to thin their herds further in a desperate attempt to stay in business, the latest blow to a reeling industry.

Alberta’s 1.85-million-head herd of beef cattle will likely shrink by at least 10 per cent and as much as 28 per cent this year, said Kevin Boon, vice-chairman of Alberta Beef Producers.

A cold spring topped by drought has stunted pasture growth, but the biggest concern is a shortage of winter feed, he said. Multiple late frosts this spring damaged the hay crop and some farmers have had to graze cattle on hayland because of the poor condition of pastures.

“We’re in very serious trouble,” said Boon, who raises 100 head of cattle west of Edmonton.

The price of hay, currently $60 to $70 per tonne, could double this year, Boon said, but short supply is a bigger concern than price. Saskatchewan is also coping with drought and poor pasture growth.

Alberta’s herd declined 11 per cent in the past year. Cattle farmers are already borrowing against their equity to stay afloat, while smaller producers have been liquidating their herds altogether, Boon said.

Farmers would cull herds even faster but weak demand has prompted auction marts to stagger deliveries to ensure the market isn’t flooded with cattle, said Scott McKinnon, market analyst with Canfax.

Many farmers are selling cow-calf pairs at a discount, instead of waiting until the calves are old enough to separate and sell at a higher price, said Ken Ziegler, a beef specialist with the Alberta government.

Farmers were getting $1,150 to $1,400 per pair on May 9 before the drought took hold, but received as little as $775 on June 5 at auction due to a glut of cattle for sale, he said.

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