One of the largest livestock evacuations in Manitoba history is underway in the Interlake region as cattle producers frantically try to move their herds away from rising Lake Manitoba flood waters.
Producers are desperately seeking alternative temporary homes for tens of thousands of cattle displaced by unprecedented flooding around the lower Lake Manitoba basin.
Manitoba Beef Producers and the province are trying to help producers find pastures for their cattle and trucks to haul them there.
But many producers last week said they felt totally unprepared and left to their own devices.
Mark Emilson, a Vogar producer, said he received a phone call out of the blue from his local municipality telling him he should be prepared to move himself and his cattle.
Emilson, whose 400 cows were just finishing calving, said he hung up the phone stunned.
“It was surreal,” he said.
Scores of producers in a dozen municipalities around the south basin have been advised to evacuate their cattle ahead of rising lake levels or risk having herds isolated.
Manitoba Beef Producers believes at least 20,000 cattle need to be moved. The number could eventually reach 100,000 head, said Audrey Treichel, an MBP spokesperson.
“The need for pasture is going to depend on how bad things get,” Treichel said.
Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives said it’s up to producers to help themselves first and the province will step in where needed.
“Our process is that producers deal with their situation themselves. Everybody does what they can,” said Gerald Huebner, MAFRI acting assistant deputy minister.
“If they’re not able to, we suggest first of all to talk to their municipalities in terms of those arrangements. The municipalities then go through the emergency operations centre and we become involved.”
Heavy spring run-off, chronic wet conditions from successive wet summers and water diverted from the swollen Assininboine River into Lake Manitoba have combined to drastically raise lake levels, forcing water inland and threatening homes and farms.
Last week the Assiniboine Diversion, which siphons water from the river northward into the lake, was operating well above capacity and carrying more water than the Winnipeg floodway, according to Manitoba Water Stewardship.
Water Stewardship predicts Lake Manitoba levels will be at 815.5 feet above sea level by the first week in June. Normally, levels range between 810.8 and 812.8 feet.
Provincial authorities estimate an additional 200 square miles of land along the shoreline are flooded this spring.
Waves whipped up by high winds will inevitably cause lake levels to “inundate further inland,” said Steve Topping, Water Stewardship’s executive director of operations.
Producers last week were scrambling to find places to move their cattle and vehicles to haul them.
Art Jonasson, who last week was days away from having his access road near Vogar cut off by encroaching flood water, had located pasture for some of his 300 cows near Gladstone on the other side of the lake.
But getting them there will be a huge challenge, Jonasson said.
Rounding up cattle from muddy pastures is one problem. Loading them is another. Jonasson said he knew one producer who would have to haul cattle 30 miles in trailers just to get them to an appropriate loading site.
Producers spoke of setting up temporary loading sites and vaccinating calves as they went up ramps into trucks.
Leaving cattle cut off by flood waters is not an option because they would have no feed.
“We can’t let our animals starve,” Jonasson said.
MAFRI Minister Stan Struthers declared a provincial livestock emergency May 10 enabling the government to open up crown lands and wildlife refuges for emergency grazing.
Huebner said last week MAFRI was busy identifying locations.
Stress levels were high among producers, some of whom wondered if relocating their cattle was even possible.
“This is more than a crisis. This is devastation,” said Theresa Johnson, who raises cattle with her husband Greg at Vogar.
Even if cattle can be evacuated, it’s only a temporary measure, said Jonasson. He worried about the condition of pastures after flood waters finally subside weeks from now.
“They’re not going to have pastures to come back to.” [email protected]
– ART JONASSON