Though the gears of government relief programs have begun grinding into motion, that aid will come far too late for many drought-stricken ranchers.
“It’s taking so long,” said Arnthor Jonasson, who is a cattle farmer and the reeve of the RM of West-Interlake. “If the government is at all interested in trying to save the cow herd in Manitoba, especially up in the Interlake here, something has to be done soon.”
Why it matters: Calls for aid have become increasingly loud as Manitoba, and the Interlake and livestock sectors in particular, find themselves in the epicentre of crisis-driving drought.
Help would come, promised federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau. On Aug. 6, she announced the federal government would make $100 million available through the AgriRecovery framework, following up on a July 22 promise that AgriRecovery assessments were underway.
AgriRecovery is a disaster relief framework by which federal and provincial governments may assist farmers with “extraordinary costs” related to recovering from disaster, according to a provincial explainer.
At time of writing, it remained to be seen how AgriRecovery funds would be doled out in Manitoba.
While there appeared to be consensus between Manitoba Beef Producers (MBP) and the province as to what key points of that AgriRecovery program should look like, the question remains as to how to rebuild the portion of the beef herd that has already been lost.
The wish list
As of Aug. 4, MBP’s overall ask was for a two-pronged approach.
First, there must be financial support for producers who intend to keep their animals and hunt down pricey feed, MBP general manager Carson Callum said. The second prong was for long-term help allowing ranchers to rebuild.
The group advocated for a per-head payment to account for the increased cost of feeding animals, to be used at the farmer’s discretion instead of, say, paying for freight costs, Callum said.
“We think the producer in their given area should be able to determine what works best for their business decisions,” he said.
The Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association made a similar ask. The association voted to lobby for a $400-per-head payment for the breeding herd, it said on its Facebook page July 29.
Callum said there’s some concern that a per-head payment will only serve to push hay and feed prices higher but added that, ultimately, that’s not in their control.
“We feel that if the money goes directly to producers through a program that they can work to find the best decision,” he said.
On Aug. 5, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Ralph Eichler said he also advocated for a per-head payment on a receipt basis, as not all cattle producers are in the same dire straits.
However, many ranchers won’t be buying feed. Many have already been forced to sell cattle and, in some cases, liquidate whole herds.
In the hard-hit Interlake, many ranchers had yet to recover from severe drought in 2019.
“In 2019 the Interlake also saw a drought and I saw many producers struggle to buy their feed so they could keep their breeding herd,” wrote Kirk Kiesman, general manager of the Ashern Auction Mart, on its Facebook page. “The price of feed was high and many producers used their equity and savings to get through the year.
“Most younger farmers have leveraged all equity already on their breeding stock and previous droughts and have no bargaining power or collateral to take to the banking institutions to borrow more,” he said.
Young farmers who refinanced their ranches won’t refinance again, even if they can, according to Jonasson; they won’t keep their cows.
The Ashern Auction Mart advertised 700 cow-calf pairs to go into the ring during its Aug. 4 sale, the auction posted to Twitter. Weeks earlier, a July 22 sale saw 1,380 head.
RM of Grahamdale Reeve Craig Howse said he knew of five or six farmers who had liquidated their herds.
“It’s only going to get worse,” he said.
Selling breeding stock will mean losing substantial equity, said Jonasson — he estimated up to $800 per animal.
MBP has advocated for a long-term recovery plan, Callum said — details were still in discussion.
Kiesman already had a plan in mind. He said a program similar to AgriInvest should be implemented, which would allow producers forced to sell cows to invest $800 per animal and have the government match those funds.
“This $1,600 would be used as security against a producer’s livestock loans until the producer can use the money to rebuild their herd,” Kiesman wrote.
“Producers will be selling livestock based solely on a responsibility to the welfare of the animals and not in consultation with their bank,” he added. “When lending finds out the animals are no longer there, they will need a new security.”
A program like this would increase the odds of ranchers rebuilding herds, he said.
“If a producer decides after the drought is over that they no longer want to get back into the livestock industry, their money would be returned but there would be no government contribution,” Kiesman wrote.
The opposition NDP weighed in on the issue with an Aug. 6 news release which — besides calling for freight assistance and temporarily reduced lease payments on Crown lands — called on the province to offer a zero per cent interest lending program with a 15-year payback, “to help cattle producers continue to breed their herds and ensure beef prices remain affordable for Manitoba families.”
“We know there is a direct line from climate change’s impact on our farms to the prices of food in our grocery stores,” said NDP Ag Critic Diljeet Brar. “The last thing families need is food prices to increase even more. The province needs to step in to keep life affordable and protect Manitoba’s agriculture industry.”
The province has previously been reluctant around freight assistance, saying that, in the past, such programs have led to increases in fees, and more money to the shipper than for the benefit of the farm.
Eichler agreed that a two-pronged approach was needed, including thought toward rebuilding.
“Just because we come up with a program don’t mean we’re done with the issue,” he said. “We need to continue to work. We need to continue to have a rebuild plan.”
Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, which have all asked for federal relief, may be able to band together to plan long-term recovery, he said. This might include development of more resilient seed varieties for the tame hay sector.
The province wants to partner with the federal government on as many programs as possible, Eichler said.
This included agreeing to increase the 2021 AgriStability interim benefit payment to 75 per cent from 50 per cent, Eichler announced Aug. 6.
Manitoba also invoked the late participation option for producers yet to participate in AgriStability.
Aid already in place
On Aug. 5, the province announced a few additional initiatives to support producers and continued to urge producers with hay, straw, straw to bale, standing hay, alternative feed or pasture land for sale or rent to contact their local Manitoba Agriculture and Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) centre.
The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation hay disaster benefit was also triggered July 22. The program pays out another $44 per tonne, for every tonne below a farmer’s coverage. Producers must have forage insurance through MASC to receive the benefit.
Newly announced, MASC will also not deduct premiums owing from any forage claim indemnities paid out until Sept. 30, the province said in a news release in early August.
It will make advance payments on forage claims with plans to “finalize forage claims as quickly as possible,” and will allow livestock to graze on low-yield forage fields or after a first cut of forage without counting that grazed production against their forage claim.
MASC also continues to apply a quality-adjustment factor to crops put to alternative use. Appraisals on those fields will be reduced by 40 per cent to account for the expected lower quality of grain based on a five-year average, the province said.