Manitoba’s cattle producers find themselves facing a serious hangover after a lingering winter and extremely dry start to the spring.
They’re making tough decisions about whether or not to put cattle onto pasture now, with scant regrowth, or to keep their animals on feed.
Darren Chapman, Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association chair, is among those to turn out cattle despite his reservations.
“All the cows are out,” he said of his 500-head herd. “We’ve still got some of the feeders, I guess, back.”
The Virden farmer has been relying on the last of his silage, stockpiled forage and supplemented feed to see him through the cold spring.
His fellow beef producers are trying to keep cattle off the grass as long as possible, he said, although each farm is working with their own circumstance.
“There’s a lot of people, they have their own set dates anyways,” he added. “There’s been a lot who get them out early and usually have something out there whether it’s bale grazing or stockpile feed to help. That’s what they know (and) they do each year.”
The problems started last fall, with dry conditions that hit late-season hay production, though most of the province reported decent forage stands last year.
Parts of southern Manitoba are in long-term drought, according to the Canadian Drought Monitor, run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Almost all of agricultural Manitoba was abnormally dry as of April 30, while most of the southern Interlake, southwest, south-central, and western edge of Manitoba rated moderate or severe drought conditions.
Adding to those woes was a long and lingering winter.
Producers found themselves on pause this spring after temperatures plummeted back to mid-winter in late March and early April. Overnight lows dipped below -20 C and a late snowstorm hit parts of the province in the second week of April.
The late spring has increased the cost of production and decreased the margin for error in the coming season, according to the Manitoba Beef Producers.
The producer group has urged against premature turnout, despite dwindling feed.
Brian Lemon, Manitoba Beef Producers general manager, warned in a recent interview that grazing pasture before root systems have established can drop a pasture’s yield potential by more than half.
Farmers are managing the problem differently, he noted, with some buying feed to stretch their supplies or supplementing feed for herds already in the field. Others, he said, are, “putting their cattle out maybe stretching the limits of early.”
Pasture may not be the only thing damaged, the producer group also warned. Kate Cummings, Manitoba Beef Producers beef production specialist, said producers may see a drop on the weigh scale if cattle are turned out too early.
“They won’t have a lot of nutrients out there, so they’re probably going to lose some body condition pretty quickly if they’re not supplemented with a protein or some hay, anything like that,” she said.
Jane Thornton, forage and pasture specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, said pastures and hay lands will be behind this year, while winterkill is possible.
“Certainly, this year we are behind and the forage hasn’t really started to come yet and we didn’t have very much snow in a lot of areas, so what I’ve noticed is a lot of the alfalfa has got hit heavy by frost,” she said. “We had some melting and then we had -20, -25 (C) in this region, so the alfalfa that was kind of up a little bit or had overwintered definitely got frosted.”
Thornton, who is based in southwest Manitoba, noted she has not seen many animals in the pastures yet.
Producers may also be fighting poor hay yields from last year, she added.
Manitoba generally reported good to above-average stands last year, although some regions suffered from lack of moisture in the second cut or were caught in the aftermath of winterkill.
Dry conditions add another layer of concern to the issue this year, she said.
“I’m worried,” Thornton said. “It’s dry. So far, in the southwest anyway, I’m not even seeing creeks and rivers come up and we don’t have any water left on the landscape or snow left on the landscape, so I suspect dugouts are down and if we don’t get any early-spring rain in May-June, then we could be in for another very hard summer. If producers grazed their pasture hard last year trying to keep the cattle out as long as they normally do and really grazed it off, it will be even slower coming this spring and then if we don’t get moisture, we’re going to be into a wreck.”
Thornton advised farmers to try and keep cattle off the land until late May or into June this year if they overgrazed last year.
Lemon says he also heard concerns on dugout levels early in the year.
“Early in the spring when there was still snow in the bushes and the snow was still sort of melting, we were hearing stories over concerns over dugouts and whether or not there was going to be enough run-off to fill the dugouts,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any dire, dire circumstances yet, so I think that last snowfall certainly helped and certainly getting some rains now would certainly put us in a better stead.”
Chapman is also less concerned with the dry conditions, although heat and rain would “do wonders” to jump-start growth.
“It’s not so much an issue right now,” he said. “Being drier, there’s less water in sloughs. It’s made it easier and nicer to check fence to make sure everything’s good before you turn the cattle out, but the time to worry about that, I think, is more when we hit July. That’s when we’ll definitely be needing showers. It’s usually warmer out and everything needs rain to keep it growing.”