Demand for Canadian hay south of the border has Manitoba farmers searching farther afield in order to feed their cattle this spring
A late spring and growing demand for cattle feed has depleted hay stocks across the province, leaving many beef producers paying more and travelling farther to find what they need.
“We normally buy our hay locally, just 10 or 15 miles from home. But this year we’ve had to bring it in 250 miles from home,” said Jim Lintott, who raises grass-fed beef near Oakbank.
“We’ve been really short on hay all winter and started using treated straw in February and March.”
In previous years, Lintott had his cattle out on pasture by early April. This year he expects to be feeding them until early June. Some are selling off cattle in the face of high feed costs, but Lintott isn’t willing to part with a decade’s worth of improvements in his grass-fed genetics.
“We’d really be making a big mistake selling them now,” he said.
Hay is also in short supply on the west side of the province.
“This cold isn’t helping at all either, the cows are still eating just as much as they eat in the winter time,” said Dave Koslowsky, who ranches near Killarney. Many ranchers he knows are culling harder than normal because of feed costs, says the grass-fed beef producer.
“They got rid of their poorer cows, late cows, and their trouble cows, at least in our local area,” Koslowsky said.
But it’s not just the late spring in Manitoba that’s behind the hay shortage — last year’s drought south of the border is also to blame.
“I think the primary reason for this increase in hay prices is the draw from the U.S.,” said Glenn Friesen, a forage specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI).
“In the last two or three years, more and more round bales are going from your non-traditional hay marketers, just people selling their surplus, and that’s been a bit of a game changer on prices.”
Some hay is selling for double what it sold for last year.
“It’s a wide range of prices,” said Friesen. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard ranges of a nickel to 11 cents a pound for hay now, where the old range would have been 2-1/2 cents to six cents a pound.”
MAFRI’s hay-listing website has been extremely active he said, but added farmers are finding creative solutions, including using sunflower screenings, beet pulp, distillers grain, and straw additives.
“I think producers are quite resourceful, they’ve learned over the last decade, after BSE, how to feed a range of things,” said Friesen. “They can figure out pretty quickly what they can afford to feed.”
His department also helps producers with feed rationing.
“You give us what you have for feed and we’ll put that into a calculator and kick out how many bales of this and that you should feed,” he said. “It’s helped people really sharpen their pencils and figure out down to the pound what they should be feeding.”
About 400 producers asked for rationing assistance between October and December. The situation is serious, but not “dangerous,” said Friesen.
“There are no alarm bells going off from the province’s perspective yet,” he said.
However, with reports of winterkill coming out of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, U.S. demand for hay could be high again this year.
“The pump is primed so to speak, and we may see more hay move south if prices support that,” said Friesen. Lintott noted that high grain prices have also taken some hay and pasture land out of production, as farmers try to take advantage of generous commodity returns.
“But it won’t stay out forever, it’s part of the cycle,” he said.
During some previous hay shortages there has been freight assistance provided to producers needing to ship feed significant distances, but not so this time.
“That never happened this year and that’s really a function of the financial situation in the province,” said Lintott. “In better times that would probably be available.”