Manitoba may have hit a cold snap, but provincial livestock specialists say the otherwise mild winter has been a boon for feed supplies so far.
Feed was a major concern for the livestock industry this fall. Forage yields were down across much of the province, including parts of the Interlake, central and southwestern Manitoba that reported half or less their normal hay yields. The continued dry weather added to the problem, with many producers reporting an early end to the grazing season.
Why it matters: A relatively warm winter has helped Manitoba’s feed supply situation, but provincial experts say producers aren’t out of the woods yet, with months of winter yet to come.
By midsummer, many livestock specialists were warning of a potential feed shortage, while Manitoba Agriculture was encouraging producers to look at alternatives like greenfeed or silage.
Provincial livestock specialists Shawn Cabak and Ray Bittner say much of the last months have been devoted to feed ration planning, as producers turn to more unorthodox feeds or try to stretch existing supplies with straw, grain, silage or greenfeed. They cited cases where producers have turned to potatoes or baled canola residue as part of their ration.
“I think most producers are pretty good,” Cabak said. “We did see some higher culling rates this year where producers went through their herd and moved some of those older cows, maybe underperforming cows that they didn’t have the feed supplies for, and that’s one of the options.
“If producers haven’t done a good inventory of their feed, I encourage them to do that sooner (rather) than later and if they have to look at options, do it now,” he added. “Don’t wait until the end of the winter when your flexibility decreases.”
This fall has been one of the busiest Cabak has experienced in terms of feed testing and rationing consultations.
In the Interlake, meanwhile, Bittner says producers are still “very tentative.”
The Interlake saw some of the driest conditions this summer.
“We’ve worked with a lot of guys to move their rations from pure forage rations to 30, 40 and 50 per cent grain rations to try and make it so they didn’t have to try and find more bales of hay,” he said. “For the most part, that has achieved its goal, but there are a few producers who haven’t figured that out and we’re quite concerned for them, because we’re fairly certain that when spring comes, there will be nothing to buy.”
Mostly warm weather, and therefore lower energy and protein requirements, have eased some of the strain, both said.
According to Environment Canada, average temperatures in agro-Manitoba wavered within a few degrees of -10 C during November and December 2018, with days climbing near or above freezing for several days at a time.
“So far it’s been a simple winter,” Bittner said in the third week of January. “This week was probably, really, the first challenging week for higher feed needs.”
At the same time, Cabak warned, there are still months of winter left and a turn in the weather could yet eat into feed supplies.
Disaster benefit triggered
Last year’s feed worries eventually sparked a government response. In August, the province announced it would open up Crown land parcels usually devoted to wildlife for haying and grazing, although industry later reported logistical challenges with that program, since those parcels did not have the needed fencing infrastructure or were difficult to access.
The province also added funding under Ag Action Manitoba for producers to cost share water projects with the province.
AAFC, meanwhile, named almost all of southern Manitoba and the Interlake eligible for its livestock tax deferral program, a program that allows producers making the largest culls to defer some of that income into the following year.
More recently, MASC announced in December that it was triggering its hay disaster benefit. Producers with select or basic hay insurance can expect an additional $40 for every tonne below their coverage, and the corporation expects to pay out about $3.2 million from 1,000 claims, MASC says.
Brian Lemon, general manager with the Manitoba Beef Producers, says it is the first time in his memory that the benefit has been triggered.
According to MASC policy, hay harvest must fall below half of a farmer’s normal long-term yield in at least 20 per cent of farmers insured with basic or select hay insurance before the benefit is triggered.
“It’s something that we’ve repeatedly brought up with the minister (Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler) and the minister has been good about listening to our concerns,” Lemon said.
“I think this is another sign that this past year was, in many cases, very dire for a lot of producers — just the way the program was designed where a significant number of producers in an area need to have a significant shortfall,” he added. “It just shows how widespread the challenges are for producers.”
The payout is unlikely to “make or break” an operation, he said, but added the extra money may help ease the sting until producers can get cattle back on the pasture this spring.