A so-far mild winter has helped bolster feed supplies, but producers aren’t out of the woods yet.
The weather has given livestock producers some reprieve compared to last year, when several weeks of consistent temperatures below -30 C hit at already strained feed supplies.
Livestock specialists are still most worried about poor nutrition for the coming calving and breeding seasons.
Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development estimates that cattle require 10 per cent more energy for every 5° drop in temperature.
This winter has seen relatively few of those brutally cold days, with the exception of a two-week cold snap in mid-January, and even that was relatively mild by Manitoba standards. Environment and Climate Change Canada reported several daytime highs near or below -20 C during that time, with minimum temperatures falling near or below -30 C. Last year, temperatures dipped below -40 C at times, with stretches between -25 C and -30 C from mid-January to the end of February.
Brent Benson, who ranches near Winnipegosis, said he expects his feed supply to hold, partially because of the mild weather.
“We’re basically feeding grain and lots of wild hay,” he said.
Benson was among those lucky enough to source feed within easy driving distance of his farm, he said, although over half of his feed came from rented or shared cropland this year. Others have not been so lucky, he acknowledged.
“I travel quite a bit of the province and I hear a lot of guys are still pretty tight — re-evaluating daily whether some cows have to go or stay because, really, it doesn’t seem like buying (feed) is an option at the moment,” he said. “There’s nothing to be had and what there is, is not economical.”
Brooke Rossnagel of MacGregor also says the warmer weather has helped maintain his feed.
“I think we might be OK,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go yet, but (we’re) feeding a lot of pellets and trying to avoid hay because of the cost involved. I’m trying to stretch my hay as far as I can.”
The province’s livestock extension staff also say the weather has helped, although they are waiting to breathe any sighs of relief.
Pam Iwanchysko, the livestock specialist based in Dauphin, says any reprieve brought on by the warmer weather has often been cancelled out by even shorter feed supplies than last year.
Producers in her area have depleted any reserves they might have had last winter, she said, and she has noted continuing culls as producers are forced to sell bred cows.
“This has been the busiest season of my entire career in terms of doing rations and trying to overcome shortfalls by feeding anything that guys can possibly get their hands on,” she said.
Feed was a driving topic throughout late 2019, after a second year of significantly short forage harvests. The province initially hosted six meetings oriented around planning for short feed, a schedule that was later expanded to 10 due to high demand.
Producers in her area have been reaching for everything from feed grains — usually a product of the fall’s wet conditions that led many crops to sprout in the field — to DDGs (dried distillers grains) or pea and canola straw, Iwanchysko said.
That creativity has helped keep the cattle full, although it has also piled work onto her desk. Those rations also require more homework and feed testing to get the right nutritional balance, she said.
“I am concerned about what may happen if guys are not looking at feed rations and just feeding and hoping for the best, for sure,” she said. “Specifically, in straw-grain-based rations the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio could be out of whack.”
Other mineral deficiencies should also be on producers’ radar, she added.
Tim Clarke, livestock specialist based in Gladstone, echoed Iwanchysko. The Gladstone Auction Mart has seen bred cow sales, he confirmed.
About 240 bred cows were registered for a bred cow sale in Gladstone Feb. 7. Another 325 bred cows were expected to be sold the same day at another sale at Virden’s Heartland Livestock Services.
“People would ordinarily not want to sell those, but they don’t have enough feed for them and probably don’t want to finance or can’t finance to purchase more feed,” Clarke said.
Experts also say they are worried about nutrition coming into the next calving and breeding seasons.
Many cattle will be coming into their next breeding cycle underconditioned, Clarke said, something both he and Iwanchysko worry could impact how quickly cows start to cycle for the coming breeding season.
Vets had similar fears confirmed last fall, after sounding the alarm on cow nutrition on pasture. In summer 2019, vets in the Interlake in particular worried that poor nutrition may lead to poor conception rates. Veterinarians near Ashern later reported consistent open rates between 20 to 30 per cent.
“Colostrum quality and milk volume is going to be declined,” Clarke also said. “So it’s going to affect weaning weights next fall.”
That lack of colostrum could also herald a bad year for weak or sick calves, he added.
“If they’re compromised in terms of their nutrition, you’re going to see more problems with cows that don’t clean when they calve, cows that don’t have a lot of milk; some cows might not even have any milk,” he said.
Long-term weather forecasts continued to be favourable approaching the last week of February, as of press time.