Hay shortages still have a chokehold on Manitoba as producers take stock of their first cut.
Rains gave much-needed relief to fields across southern Manitoba since the end of June, but it was largely too late for the forage crop.
Top-tier stands this year only reach about 60 per cent of normal, according to John MacGregor, co-ordinator for the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association’s Green Gold hay monitoring program. The province’s poorest stands may only take off 10 to 30 per cent of their normal yield, he said.
“I think producers across the province are very concerned,” he said. “They’ve had surplus feed available in the past that they’ve been able to rely on and, with the dry conditions last year and this spring, a lot of those surpluses, they’re gone. They’re basically relying heavily on this year’s crop to feed their cattle.”
It’s a familiar story to anyone paying attention to feed supplies last year. Short feed landed most of agricultural Manitoba on the federal livestock tax deferral program, a program that requires an area to hit half or less its normal long-term forage harvest to be eligible. The situation grew worse with pastures already strained from poor conditions in fall 2017 and spring 2018 and then pushed hard again last fall. Many producers began feeding weeks early, or took herds off pastures entirely as of September.
This spring did little to help, with cold and dry conditions delaying regrowth and farmers either feeding well into spring, or risking further stress to pastures with early turnout.
Alfalfa lagged well behind normal. Stands in western Manitoba still sat under a foot high by the end of May. In the west, most hay swaths only appeared in late June or the first days of July as producers traded hay quality for greater quantity. The Green Gold program reported stands in central Manitoba and the west had fallen below the ideal 150 relative feed value (RFV) by mid-June.
“It’s definitely going to be on the light side this year,” Matt Van Steelandt of Triple V Ranch in Medora, Man., said.
Van Steelandt had just started his first cut in the first week of July.
Rains in late June and early July have raised hopes for a second cut, although producers note that the recent precipitation must continue.
Fields have picked up somewhat in central Manitoba, some parts of the southwest and along the border in the southeast, according to MacGregor, although little rain has fallen north of the Trans-Canada Highway in the east and both the Interlake and northwest Manitoba remain tinder dry.
The benefit has also been patchy due to spotty thundershowers, he noted.
The Interlake has, “pretty well suffered the whole time,” he said. The region missed many of the rains that hit southern Manitoba in the last weeks. The region was also hard hit by dry conditions last year, and producers say that the rapidly dwindling soil moisture reserve is taking its toll on pastures.
“Last year was one of the worst years I’ve ever gone through since 1989,” said Glen Metner, who farms near Moosehorn. “In some places, we were doing 50 bales per quarter section. This year, it doesn’t look any better. It’s probably worse.”
Forage was, “very poor, almost non-existent,” fellow Moosehorn-area farmer Arden Weigelt said.
The area has seen 52 per cent of normal moisture since the start of April, according to Manitoba Agriculture.
Grasshoppers are also expected to take another chunk out of the forage harvest, Weigelt added.
Metner is already anticipating the shorter-than-normal hay crop. He hopes his area will once again make the national livestock deferral, which allows producers to defer tax on large cattle sales until the following year.
Producers in the area say they are planning on grain supplements, wild hay or have increased silage acres in an effort to bridge the feed gap, although some, including Metner, are already expecting to cull.
MacGregor noted more producers sowing corn for silage this year, although weather this spring was generally unfriendly to the heat-loving crop. Much of central and parts of western Manitoba were approaching normal growing degree days as of July 1, the province reports, although pockets of the province still report 82 per cent or less.
Greenfeed, likewise, will likely see an uptick this year. MacGregor says several farmers are exploring a pricing formula for greenfeed.
Straw will also likely be in high demand, something that also came to the fore last year. Farmers last year found little straw to meet their need, driven by both drought-shortened cereal crops and rotary combines leaving few windrows to bale.
Some producers may have made connections with food processors or grain farmers to access byproducts and waste after last year’s hard season, MacGregor said, although he doubts that those resources will go far, given the sheer number of producers who may be looking for feed.