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Culling best when earliest

No one wants to cull, but could producers have saved themselves pasture, herd size and market headaches if they had started winnowing a little earlier this year?

Experts were forecasting a hard cull after this year’s feed challenges.

Manitoba’s cattle auction marts were ready for a glut that didn’t come early this fall.

Feed was short, pastures had dwindled and experts were warning that a heavy cow cull was on the way. By most reports, however, that wasn’t what happened.

Why it matters: Producers seemed to hold on to their cattle this fall, despite experts anticipating a heavy cull. Now auction marts say the volumes are rolling in and it’s creating a bottleneck in the market.

Instead, auction marts say those volumes were later than expected and cull cows are now streaming in, leaving the cattle industry waiting to gauge the impact of the last-minute influx.

Rick Wright, manager of Heartland Order Buying Co. in Virden, said there was no sudden rise in stocker and feeder cattle deliveries this fall, although the cull cow market has now taken off.

“Harvest is absolutely done; there’s snow on the ground, so the guys are bringing the cows in; they’re preg testing,” he said. “They’re going a little bit deeper in the cull than normal, I think, because of the feed situation across Manitoba. It’s pretty short, so they’re not going to keep any, what we call freeloaders, over the wintertime.”

The latecomers are no longer raking in the prices seen earlier this year, he added.

Cull cows have found a limited market and prices remain above those in the U.S., discouraging export, Wright said.

“Really, we have three packing plants that kill cows in any kind of volume here in Western Canada and they’re making more money killing fed cattle than they are killing cows, so the supply has certainly exceeded demand and will continue to do so until we hit that U.S. price,” he said.

Burke Teichert (l) offered his take on ranch management and culling strategy during the MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference in Brandon Nov. 27-28. photo: Alexis Stockford

It is similar even in parts of the province hardest pressed by the lack of feed, where one might have expected producers to be ready to pull the trigger earlier.

Kirk Kiesman, manager of the Ashern Auction Mart, says their fall run started later than anticipated, and they have since seen far more cattle than their usual fall run. Cattle have arrived from producers that Kiesman says would normally market in the new year. Added to that, he added, arriving animals have been notably leaner than normal.

Learn to let go?

The late cull is something that Burke Teichert, a longtime multi-ranch manager and one of the guests of honour during the recent MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference in Brandon, cautions against.

“The sooner you start to destock in drought, the less you have to destock,” he advised, adding that those who are rotationally grazing can use the system as a benchmark.

“If you’re in any kind of a grazing rotation — adaptive grazing — where you’re moving your cattle with fairly good frequency, if you’re having to move them ahead of your plan, that means you’re running out of feed and you’ve got to move them not because it’s time to move them, but because the feed dictates that you have to move them,” he said. “That’s a good early warning signal.”

Teichert — who has helped oversee ranches from the Canadian Prairies, through the U.S. and down to Argentina — says he typically keeps a running priority list to guide his cull. Open and dry cows are both top of the list, running down through aged cows and yearlings. Animals that need individual attention or help should also be up for cull, he told conference attendees in Brandon, along with any who are wild, have poor calves, or meet the producer’s definition of “ugly.”

Teichert also urged every farmer to develop both a drought and heavy snow plan.

“The heavy snow plan, you either have to have feed on hand or know where you can get it readily and sort of know how much you can push before you have to activate that plan,” he said. “How deep does the snow have to be? How tough does it need to be?”

In some cases, he said, producers purposefully add tall, rigid warm-species crops to their cover crop mix to guard against heavy snow, or plan for corn grazing.

Match with Manitoba?

Brian Lemon, general manager of the Manitoba Beef Producers, says he is not concerned that pastures may have been stressed from producers hanging on to their herds, despite short feed.

“Later in the fall, we actually had a fair bit of rain,” he said.

The rain did little to help grazing this year, but may be a boon for regrowth come spring, he said.

Wright, meanwhile, says the fall cull has created a market bottleneck.

Heartland Order Buying Co. spent several weeks trucking cattle to feedlots in Ontario and Quebec when pen space ran out.

On top of cull cows, Wright estimates that 15 to 20 per cent more calves moved this fall, despite Canfax numbers claiming the season has been comparable to previous years.

“Everybody who is shipping is shipping the majority of their cattle,” he said. “They’re not keeping any little ones back. Heifer retention is moderate at best and now (that) the heifer prices have picked up a little bit, we’re seeing more heifers coming to town.”

Lemon, however, argues there was, in fact, an early uptick of cattle volumes when cattle were taken off pasture early before things levelled off.

“Since then, what’s happened I think is that a lot of producers were able to actually find sufficient feed,” he said.

“We’re still waiting on the numbers to come in from the auction marts, but we’re not hearing the stories of huge, huge sell-downs,” he added.

Weather may have put a damper on the fall run, both Wright and Kiesman suggested.

Manitoba took an early dip into the deep-freeze in late September, with some regions reporting multiple snowfalls by the end of the month. Field work and harvest largely came to a standstill.

Farmers may not have relished shipping cattle in the mud and snow, Kiesman said, while Wright argued that deliveries were still more volatile due to the occasional break in the weather, causing farmers to cancel their shipments in place of getting back on the field.

Those deliveries would then appear en masse when the cold and wet returned, adding yet more pressure to the bottleneck.

What’s up for 2019?

According to Heartland Order Buying’s Rick Wright, it will depend largely on the weather.

Wright expects that the province’s cow-calf market may rebound next year, if pastures get adequate snowfall and early spring rains. Should the winter mirror this year’s lack of snow and dry spring, however, Wright expects to see further culls.

Ashern Auction Mart’s Kirk Kiesman, meanwhile, expects to see his numbers drop in 2019 after the influx this fall.

Manitoba Beef Producers does expect downward pressure from the challenging year. Brian Lemon, MBP general manager, expects herd growth to taper off, although he dismissed concerns that herd size would actually shrink.

Wright, however, is not so optimistic. Manitoba’s cattle numbers are shrinking, he suggested, especially if the dry cycle does not break. According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, Manitoba counted 429,000 cattle, down from 484,700 in 2011.

About the author


Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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