It’s time for Manitoba’s farmers to band together.
Why it matters: Livestock producers say less than ideal annual crops could be the answer to avoiding a feed crisis, while also providing cash flow for grain producers but it may not be that easy.
The last few weeks may be best described as anxiety inducing for Manitoba’s farmers. Many regions have still seen only limited rain, while there are both widespread reports of drought-stressed annual crops and far-below-average forage supplies both in the hayfield and the pasture.
Province-wide, crops are short, maturing at breakneck pace and continued lack of rain, plus heat warnings, have brought harvest yields into question. Plants may abort or fail to fill, producers worried as forecasts remained dry, while an increasing number of crop watchers have said that the need for rain is becoming critical. Many say even an average crop might be asking too much, unless weather turns around.
Concern is most acute, however, in the livestock sector. Grim reports out of the Interlake have been widely publicized, with rapidly declining pastures and lack of feed leading to a rash of municipalities announcing states of agricultural disaster by the second week of July.
Both drought and grasshoppers had stripped many pastures and hayfields in the area, and conditions had deteriorated to the point that cattle have already been sold, including an emergency cattle sale in Ashern July 7, which saw almost 500 head in the sales ring.
The cumulative impact of Manitoba’s four-year dry streak has further compounded the situation, with many hard-hit farms still recovering from 2019, a year that also saw deep culls in the Interlake region, when this year hit.
Outside of the crisis area of the Interlake, other beef producers are similarly worried. Pasture stress and low dugout levels have been widely noted this year, while even the best hayfields in the province yielded perhaps 70 per cent of normal in the first cut, according to the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, and many fell closer to half.
Producers now hope that marginal annuals — such as fields written off by crop insurance, or crop residue come fall — will help fill some of that gap and add value for the grower.
“The only thing we can do is look for solutions and try and come up with them as fast as we can,” Andre Steppler, who farms near Miami, Man., said.
In a video filmed in one of Steppler’s thirsty silage cornfields and then posted to social media, Steppler said Manitoba’s cattle herd was “in jeopardy,” and urged crop producers to connect with livestock producers if they have straw or annual crops available for winter feed.
“It’s the answer to both industries right now in a sense that, yes, we are in a drought situation, but there’s also a tremendous amount of feed out there if we can get access to it,” Steppler said in a later interview. “Crops that are 15-bushels-an-acre oats right now, it makes sense to put it into a silage pile.”
Some corn crops, likewise, may be light enough that their value doesn’t balance against the effort of harvest and drying, he noted, especially if that crop ends up “just as a salvage value crop that’s going to go to the livestock sector anyways.”
And while that feed may be critical to rescuing cow-calf operations in the province, Steppler also argued that those grains-turned-forages could offer cash flow to the annual crop sector.
It’s a topic that has already come up between Manitoba Beef Producers and the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC). Weeks ago, MBP said it had been in discussion with MASC about tapping marginal crops for feed. The agency later sent informational emails to its policyholders, outlining the option for alternate-use crops, as well as the process of going through the switch through MASC.
Steppler has since been joined in his calls for co-operation. MBP president Tyler Fulton made a similar plea, also on social media.
“We’re at a really critical point in the growing season this year with the drought conditions felt right across the province,” Fulton said. “In particular, there are areas that are a complete disaster where there is no pasture left and there’s no prospect for any winter feed production.”
He urged farmers to contact their local crop insurance representative to transfer marginal crops to alternate use.
“What I’m hoping is that crop producers and livestock producers can make agreements to utilize those marginal crops that are just not going to be economically viable to combine later in the fall, and right now, they still have value from a feed perspective,” he said.
The key, however, Steppler said, will be getting those crops off in time that they do still have good feed value, something that grain producers may be reluctant to do, given market realities.
High commodity prices make it attractive for grain growers to take the gamble on a crop rather than pulling the trigger early enough to silage, Steppler noted. Likewise, the drop in mixed farms may mean that grain farmers have little reference to price something like silage, having had little experience with livestock management.
The prospect is a “big ask,” for grain producers, Steppler acknowledged.
There must be incentives to make such a deal worthwhile for the crop grower, he said.
At the same time, crop producers may have their own value for crop residue or unviable crop. Some cite nutrient provided when plant matter is worked back into the soil. Others may want to keep stubble high to catch snow, leaving little residue tonnage available, given crops are already shortened by drought stress.
“And then we also get into logistics of crop removal,” Steppler said. “Can it be done in a timely manner so that those crop guys can get prepared for next year?… There’s so many things that need to come together to make sure it’s a symbiotic relationship.”
And, once again, there is the issue of timing. The window is closing on silage for many cereals, Steppler noted, although corn silage has more buffer for livestock and crop producers to connect and arrange a deal.
There is need for education in both sectors, as well as experts to provide a base average price for forage to help producers who may be lost on pricing, Steppler argued. Besides all that, there must be a medium through which producers from the two sectors can connect.
It is that kind of role he sees for the province’s farm groups, such as MBP or Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), given the increased range and resources of those organizations.
It is an issue currently on the table, KAP communications and government relations co-ordinator Graham Schellenberg said.
KAP is currently working on an information campaign that will provide resources and educate producers who might be looking to connect.
“We know that each farm and each producer, it’s going to be a case-by-case basis here,” Schellenberg said. “Really, it’s important that producers talk to MASC at this point when they’re considering these decisions and potential options that are available to them.”
Inter-sector connections have also featured during meetings of a working group, which is looking into farmer priorities and programs when it comes to the current drought. The group was announced by the province earlier in July, at which point the province asked several farm groups, including MBP and KAP, to collect feedback from their membership. Schellenberg says KAP has met with several farm groups as part of those efforts.
There is, however, time sensitivity when it comes to silaging, he acknowledged.
“There’s no denying that we’re at a critical point in the season right now,” he said.
While commodity groups and government go to the table, producers may want to bring out the drawing board themselves.
Steppler urged producers to sit down and lay out their goals for the year, as well as plans for management and numbers on what exactly he or she needs out of their feed resources. At the same time, he said, producers need a “real, true indication” of their individual cost of production to help determine what they can pay a grain producer when making a deal, he said.
The working group, meanwhile, expects work to continue over the coming weeks, according to Schellenberg.