Manitoba’s beef industry got an update from the ground up last week.
Manitoba Beef and Forage Days kicked off with topics like pasture management, grazing systems, traceability and a market forecast from Canfax.
The tour made five stops in as many days from Minitonas to Vita during the last week of January, plus two independent events in Austin and Plumas the week before.
Steven Cabak, Manitoba Agriculture livestock specialist, said the events drew interest throughout the tour.
“Marketing is always important to producers because that directly affects their bottom line and kind of what their market outlook will be for the upcoming year and looking at the fundamentals, including supply and demand,” he said. “We’ve seen strong exports of beef out of, not only the U.S., but Canada and another packing plant that’s purchasing cattle out of Alberta has led to strong basis and that’s pushed our cash prices up, so that’s helping producers’ bottom line.”
Harmony Beef north of Calgary opened its doors last February after years of closure with a goal of ramping up production to 800 head a day.
Dallas Rodger of Canfax put weekly Canadian feeder exports over last year’s levels in the first weeks of 2018, although short of the five-year average.
Reward and risk
Farmers were flying high on feeder market prices in 2017, but Rodger says those prices may turn into a double-edged sword when it comes to summer and fall feeders.
Calves are being bought well offside and break-evens are expected to rise even above those in 2017 and 2016, he said, making it difficult to turn a profit.
“These high-priced cattle that are coming to the market into the summer, it does pose some risk,” he said.
Manitoba traders have also noted the trend, with some raising the prospect of a price correction as break-evens become too rich.
Rodger pointed to trade dynamics with the U.S. feeder market, with Canadian beef sitting at a hefty positive basis.
Alberta fed steer basis is floating at $11.50 per hundredweight against the U.S., well above both 2017 levels and the five-year average, both of which were negative or hovering within a few dollars of even in the first months of the year.
“The challenge of being at a premium to the U.S. market with our fed cattle prices is that we have to be able to move the meat at a premium to the U.S. as well and that has posed some challenges for our western Canadian packers here, to the point to where they’ve started to slow back hours in an attempt to regain some leverage and build some front-end supply to get the basis levels back in line where they are at a profitable position,” he said.
The year has been good for cow-calf producers as well, he said, although uncertain market access and drier patches in Western Canada have added a wary note to the outlook.
Like many in the agricultural world, Canfax is keeping a close eye on NAFTA, although Rodger says markets have yet to react to international bantering over the deal.
“For the time being, everyone is just status quo, hopeful that something does get put into place here,” he said. “I would say that we haven’t seen, really, any price correction related to the trade deals.”
Heavyweight feeders have dropped about five per cent since the start of January, Rodger noted, something Canfax is claiming as the largest January decline since 2004. The drop may not be trade driven, however, but rather a symptom of attempts to bring high prices to a more workable level for feedlots, Rodger added.
Producers got a lesson on agronomic management as well as marketing.
Jane Thornton, Manitoba Agriculture pasture and rangeland specialist, walked producers through her projects on improving marginal land economically.
Rotational grazing, legume-seeding experiments, and cost effectiveness for fence have all featured in her work.
“Land prices are getting so high,” she said. “Even a piece of poor land — Class 4 or 5 land — is still really expensive for running cows on. So, to me, I’m looking at, ‘Can the producers make that poor land produce better so that they don’t have to go out and get more land?’”
Turning cattle out too early could set a pasture back if it doesn’t come with a lengthy rest period, Thornton told the room in Holland. The plant taps root reserves for its first leaves and photosynthesis is not a factor until three to four leaves are grown, she said. In most cases, she told the room, that equates to the third week of May.
Farmers grazing by mid-April risk running out of forage if drought hits, she warned.
“It can be done and it can be quite successful,” she said. “Some of the ways you can be successful is that you give that pasture lots of rest after or that you stockpiled it the year before so that those roots are really, really strong and vigorous so the grazing doesn’t influence the plant as much.”
Thornton introduced producers to her first attempts training cattle to eat leafy spurge, a weed that conventional wisdom says cattle can’t eat and can cause sores in the mouth and toxicity.
Thornton, however, says none of the herd at Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives displayed any of those problems, despite being carefully monitored by a vet.
Thornton first introduced familiar feed, followed by four days of twice-a-day feedings, each with an unfamiliar, but nutritious feed.
The idea, Thornton said, is to acclimate cattle to the unfamiliar before introducing the noxious weed.
Thornton then introduced spurge. Taking advantage of the weed’s sticky sap, Thornton added fresh spurge in feed at first, before moving on to burying a layer of molasses under spurge, forcing cattle to dig through it. She finally fed straight spurge to the cattle.
Her high feed tubs played a role in the program’s success, she added, as other cattle could see a herdmate bury its head into the bin, but not what it was eating. The competition encouraged cattle to grab a mouthful for themselves, she said. The experiment ended with a mob graze of spurge-heavy land.
Thornton’s results found that every plant in the previously endemic field had been snipped, grazed or beaten in. Cattle bit off the most spurge tops, well over 15 per cent, in early to mid-June 2017, although those numbers were hovering just above or below five per cent by the end of 2017 grazing.
While it’s unclear if animals will eat enough spurge to reduce field levels or how much spurge they will continue to eat if not forced, Thornton noted that at the very least, cattle are less likely to avoid spurge in the pasture after going through the program.
While Thornton has used the technique to teach leafy spurge, the program could be used to train a wide variety of unfamiliar feeds from silage to thistle, she said (although she cautioned that farmers should beware of nitrate problems in late-season thistle).
Beef and Forage Days events closed out with premise IDs and manifests, a topic both Manitoba Agriculture and Manitoba Beef Producers have pushed in recent months, and a session on extended grazing, veterinary questions and updates from MBP, Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives and the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association.