COMMUNITY PASTURES: Business as usual this summer

The province is still mulling options as 
federal government plans to phase out its role in community pasture management

It will be business as usual this summer, despite the recent announcement by the federal government that it is getting out of the community pasture business.

“Hopefully, by this fall, as people are taking their cattle out of pastures, it’ll be clear what to expect for next year,” said Robert Fleming, director of policy and planning for Manitoba Agricultural Crown Lands.

Applications are submitted for pasture space in the fall, with confirmation of acceptance arriving around February. Arrangements for grazing already in place will be honoured, said Fleming.

Whether the provincial government would be prepared to step in where their federal counterparts were pulling out was still up in the air, he said.

“That’s obviously the question that every producer is asking and I’m sure everybody in the provincial government involved is now trying to figure out what is the next best thing,” said Fleming.

“It’s too new to say what the provincial position is.”

Too new

Some 30,000 head of cattle and horses spend the summer on the 24 community pastures scattered around the province from The Pas to the Turtle Mountains, under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) program that started in 1939. PFRA was recently changed to Agri-Environment Services Branch, or AESB.

Generally marginal lands suitable only for grazing, the community pasture lands must be carefully managed to prevent erosion. Given the nature of the land and its varying degrees of bush cover, most of the work is done on horseback.

Cam Dahl, general manager of the Manitoba Beef Producers, said that his organization would work to ensure that community pastures continue to provide grazing access to the cattle industry in the future, regardless of who runs them.

“We need a transparent and open consultation process with the federal government and especially with the provincial government because it’s mostly their land,” said Dahl.

Options that MBP will put forward may include a co-operative model developed in Ontario, where pastures were sold to a not-for-profit producer-led organization. Future discussions over the coming months will need to involve the patrons, he added.

“There are other options, too. One of them is that the province just takes over and carries on managing the pastures as they are today.”

Dahl refused to speculate on the reasons why the federal government decided to pull out of community pastures, but to his understanding, some of the community pastures are operating at a profit, while others are not. The important thing is to maintain producer access at reasonable rates, said Dahl.

Details sketchy

Martin Unrau, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said details are sketchy at this point, but it is widely expected that the pastures will revert to provincial management.

“Whatever the provinces decide to do with the pastures is up to them,” he said.

In talks with individual ranchers, he said that there is a firm consensus that the community pastures are a valuable program they want continued.

“If the pasture rate goes up 15-20 cents per cow per day just to make it so they’re breaking even, we’re fine with that,” said Unrau.

In response to inquiries, a spokesperson for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives said that the provincial government is taking a wait-and-see stance as it waits for further details and consultations from the federal government.

“It is our understanding this process will start in 2013 and involve a small group of pastures,” she wrote in an emailed response.

“The federal government knows we’re not in a position to backfill their budget cuts.”

Alan Parkinson, executive director for the Community Pasture Program under AESB, said that the federal government’s decision to divest itself of pasture management responsibility came after a review of all government operations with the aim of reining in the deficit.

After 70 years, the program had achieved its aims of protecting marginal lands, and therefore could be ended. However, he could not place an exact dollar amount on how much money would be saved.

“Essentially, we’re transferring administration and control of provincial grazing lands back to the provinces,” said Parkinson, adding that such a move would not “shut the door” to provinces wishing to take over and develop programs of their own.

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