Calculating the genetic cost of drought

Herd genetics take years to build, but producers this year are watching much of that work head to the slaughter plant

Cattle from Edie Creek Angus kick up dust in the pasture this summer.

Craig and Lenore Brown have been building up their cattle herd for more than 20 years in the northern Interlake, and some of those genetics date back even further, back to the previous generation of their family farm.

Earlier this month, they watched a good chunk of those genetics leave.

Why it matters: The number of cattle, including breeding stock, hitting the market due to drought has many worried that next spring will see a much different, and much reduced, cattle industry.

Like many livestock producers, both in the Interlake and other regions of Manitoba, the Browns have been forced to sell cattle, including breeding stock, due to unrelenting drought.

In the worst areas, there is little grazing and what the drought hasn’t taken, the grasshoppers have. There is little feed. Many producers are hauling water.

About half of Craig Brown’s cows, along with half of his replacement heifers, have now gone to market.

“Those were productive cows that we had to sell,” he said.

“The best cows stayed home, but still, they were still good cows that we sold,” he added. “Years of genetics went with those cattle. The hardest was selling the replacement heifers, because those have the brightest future ahead of them, but the cows that stayed home have calves with them that we can market this fall. Those replacement heifers weren’t going to have a marketable calf for another year and a half.”

Brown’s story echoes many other producers across the province.

Stefan Bouw of Edie Creek Angus just east of Winnipeg said his farm sent around 80 cattle to new pasture near Stonewall at the end of June. About a month later, that pasture has run out.

The Winnipeg auction mart saw 50 head from Bouw’s farm in the first week of August, cattle he says they would normally sell as beef or finished animals through the next few years.

“That’s sort of been the first wave for us,” he said. “Those feeder cattle had to go, because I didn’t have a way to keep them around.”

The farm runs both a purebred Angus herd and specializes in direct-marketed, grass-fed beef.

Manitoba’s drought problem, which has already made national and international headlines, has only got worse since the first municipality announced a state of agricultural disaster in early July.

“Exceptional drought” areas, laid out as a once-in-50-year event by the Canadian Drought Monitor, grew to dominate a huge swatch of agro-Manitoba by July 31.

What wasn’t gripped by “exceptional drought” by July 31, was in “severe drought.”

As of the end of July, the Canadian Drought Monitor reported almost all cattle in Manitoba were now in areas suffering from at least severe drought.

As general manager of the Ashern Auction Mart, Kirk Kiesman has already watched thousands of cattle be sold out of the region, all during what would normally be the dead season of the market cycle.

One sale in early August saw 2,260 head sold, including 800 cow-calf pairs.

That loss of genetics has been “huge,” Kiesman said.

Province-wide, more cattle have been hitting the market week after week this year, driven by drought. Weekly market data, collected by the province, shows anywhere from 13.1 to 19.9 per cent more cattle sold each week, compared to the same time the year before, since the start of June.

“Some of that could have been cull animals that would have sold anyways,” Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Carson Callum said, “but a good portion is guys dispersing that herd. It’ll take awhile to rebuild, there’s no doubt about it.”

Some of the cattle sold in Ashern have been bound for Ontario — where feed is more plentiful — or whatever patches of the Prairies have seen rain, Kiesman said, but many others are bound for the slaughter plant.

He estimates that 20,000 to 25,000 head, half of the cattle herd in the northern Interlake, could be gone before all is said and done this year.

Feeders and breeders

Manitoba’s seedstock producers, meanwhile, are worried about business next year, with so many of their customers contracting herds.

“We’re nervous,” Jeff Cavers, past president of the Manitoba Charolais Association and a farmer near La Riviere, said. “We’re nervous of how many bulls are going to be purchased next spring.”

At the same time, he noted, purebred operators are also scrambling for feed.

Most cattle hitting the Ashern Auction Mart are from cow-calf producers, according to Kiesman. Most seedstock operators are “trying to hang on a little bit differently,” he said. “Their cows have more value than a traditional beef herd.”

That said, the same early-August sale that claimed 2,260 head included 75 to 80 purebred pairs, all from breeders local to the Interlake.

Sherry Rozecki, president of the Association of Manitoba Feeders Cooperatives (AMFC), says there is considerable concern whether there will be enough feeders next year, given the number of cattle being dumped.

Some long-established family farms in her area around Riverton have been forced to liquidate herds and retire early, she said.

“What I’ve got from most people is it’s a scary time right now,” she said. “Some of my farmers haven’t even filled their feedlots because with the heat that we’ve had and the drought, it’s affected them majorly.”

Breeders, meanwhile, are “very concerned about what the future holds for them, because they’re in unknown times.”

In past years, producers might expect some help from areas of the Prairies with better feed, she noted. This year, with drought stretching across every Prairie province and into B.C., that buffer isn’t there.

The AMFC represents both feeder and breeder co-ops in Manitoba.

Grass-fed operations, like Edie Creek Angus, face yet another problem: The corn and other grains the livestock sector hopes to feed this winter are not an option for them.

“I will have cut down my beef sales by probably two-thirds for the next two years,” Bouw said. “I still have enough to take care of my regular customers, but the plan was to grow and build that market, and that just won’t be possible with what’s happened this year.”

Recovery time?

It’s difficult to say when rebuilding can start or how long it will take, without knowing when Manitoba’s years-long dry streak will abate.

“We don’t know if this is going to carry into next year or not, and then that’ll just compound it even worse,” Callum said, “but we’re hoping that we’ll get some good moisture, especially this fall and into the winter and that things look better come springtime.”

Kiesman estimates that recovery will be a three- to five-year process, depending on what kind of aid programs and weather develop.

The market, however, is another cause for concern, since many producers will, currently, be selling valuable breeding stock for much less than the likely price to replace them in a better year.

“Just on the equity, they’re going to be behind by, you know, $1,000 to $1,800 on every bred cow,” Kiesman said.

Also, he added, many of those animals will not be so easy to replace, regardless of if producers can afford to.

“We can’t go buy cattle from southern Saskatchewan, bring them up into the northern Interlake and have them do well,” he argued. “There’s a two- to three-year adjustment period just because our grass is different and our climate’s different in the northern Interlake.”

Aid promised

Rebuilding the herd did feature in the province’s recent pledge for AgriRecovery. On Aug. 10, Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Ralph Eichler promised $62 million for programs including feed assistance, feed and cattle transportation and herd rebuilding. Programs were being developed, the province said, and no details were available.

The announcement came after a federal promise of $100 million for AgriRecovery, with federal Ag Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau noting the government is willing to look for more funds, if needed.

There are many avenues possible for that aid, Callum noted, although the backbone of any rebuilding program would need funds to replace lost breeding animals, “understanding that you probably sold some of those for a low price and you’re going to be buying in a more, probably, inflated market, because there might be others trying to get back in.”

The cattle sector is now looking for more buy-in from the federal government.

AgriRecovery disaster relief is typically cost shared 60-40 between the federal and provincial governments. Provincial amounts currently promised far exceed the $100 million from the federal government, if that funding formula is followed.

“It’s a very good start and I appreciate Manitoba putting in that amount, but we still need the federal government to step in and make that match to make it a fully funded AgriRecovery program, to make it fully efficient,” Callum said.

Brown says he is encouraged to see the province take rebuilding measures into account. In fact, he added, it’s among the most beneficial of the program types currently promised.

It is his hope, he said, that next year will be better, and with better grass, the farm can start their own rebuilding, replacing some of those lost heifers and working back from there.

“It’s set our farm back years, really,” he said. “We’re not ready to retire, but we’re early 50s, so you do like to think down the road. Our plan had always been to have a nice dispersal sale where we would exit the market and the industry on our terms and we kind of feel like that’s impossible right now.”


For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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