As Manitoba basks in a startlingly mild winter, the province’s graziers are catching a long-overdue break.
After successive years of poor pasture, extended feeding seasons and disappointing hay harvests, the mild weather has put a cap on their herds’ feed needs.
That’s helping them make the most of what they have, producers and industry watchers have noted.
Why it matters: Many producers are still playing catch-up after several straight years of feed shortage, but Mother Nature seems inclined to play ball so far this winter.
Mean temperatures between Nov. 1, 2020 and Jan. 3, 2021 ranged from 2° to 6° above 30-year averages, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development has reported. In central Manitoba, most areas reported average temperatures between 3° and 5° higher than mean temperatures over the last three decades.
“Cattle will not consume as much as they would normally if it was another 10° or 15° colder, so it will help anyone who might be tight on their winter feed,” provincial livestock specialist Shawn Cabak said.
Feed requirements can jump 10 to 15 per cent, “even 20 per cent,” with extreme cold, he noted. Milder weather, he added, can therefore tip that 10 to 15 per cent the opposite direction. For producers with little wiggle room in their feed plan coming into winter, that drop might provide a well-needed cushion towards the end of the feeding season, he said.
It’s perhaps a pleasant shift from recent years. Both 2018 and 2019 saw critically short feed, leading a laundry list of municipalities to announce states of agricultural disaster last year. Hay prices skyrocketed in the face of feed shortages, compounded with flagging pastures that extended both ends of the feeding season. Extremely dry regions reported higher open rates in 2019, while producers reported widespread culls as feed supplies failed, reserves dried up and little additional feed was to be found for sale.
A cold winter in early 2019 also did nothing to ease the strain. Producers coming off a tough feed year in 2018 found their reserves further chipped away by added feed requirements during the several-week cold snap. Recent years have also seen poor pasture regrowth and delayed turnouts, further straining feed supplies.
Hay yields, on balance, were better in 2020, according to groups such as the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA), although some pockets were still expecting shortfalls.
A December update from the MFGA reported feed supplies were adequate or had a slight surplus, something the group attributed to 2020 plans to grow more feed, extended grazing last fall, mild weather and reduced herd sizes following culls the previous year.
Carson Callum, general manager with the Manitoba Beef Producers, noted that many hope to replenish their battered feed reserves thanks to last year’s more fruitful production, and the warmer temperatures will only aid that.
“The mild weather has helped with stretching some of that feed and perhaps some of those folks who had a really good fall for developing some of that feedstock will be able to stretch that into a safety net for future years,” he said. “I think it is a bit of a relief knowing that. But, that being said, there’s still some producers who might have some feed shortages or challenges.”
Producers who are still short of feed may also be finding it easier to source extra, those same experts have said. Extra feed is more available this year, the Manitoba Beef Producers reported anecdotally, while both Cabak and Callum noted that hay prices have come down.
“The prices aren’t as outrageous,” Callum said. “I think some have been able to find feedstocks when they need it a little more reasonably.”
Cabak noted, however, that while lower than the sky-high levels of 2019, prices are still above what many would consider normal.
Prices are softening, according to John McGregor, MFGA extension support.
“What we’re finding right now is there is a difference between the asking price and the price that producers are wanting to pay,” he said. “We’re still seeing prices a little bit higher than they likely should be, more because people are pricing their hay based on hay shortage.”
Hay demand, however, is no longer at shortage levels, he said.
“The prices that are being bought at right now tend to be the lower end of the range that we’re seeing in our price report,” he said.
Callum further noted that it is still too early to talk about increasing herd sizes after the culls in 2019.
The relative lack of snowfall, however, is still of concern.
Most of agro-Manitoba sat at 30 to 50 per cent of normal precipitation between the start of November and Jan. 3, the province has said, with the barest regions seeing only 16 per cent of the precipitation they would normally see.
While weather has been mild thus far, a cold snap without that insulating snow layer now might risk damage to next year’s forage, Cabak noted.
Lack of dugout recharge is yet another concern. Dried dugouts have become a common mention in hay and pasture reports, including last year, while Cabak noted Manitoba’s current snowpack promises little run-off to fill those reserves.
“That’s something that needs to be considered when we think of the lack of moisture that we’ve got this winter,” Callum also said, “not just in the beef side of things but for in the agriculture sector. We need some of that moisture throughout the winter months and I’m hoping we get a bit more in the next coming months.”
“It’s still early,” Cabak also noted, however, adding that one large snowfall or spring rainfall could easily change the situation.
McGregor also noted that dugout recharge will depend on the speed of the spring melt.
“It’s hard at this time to say one way or the other as far as that goes,” he said. “I think the bigger concern we have right now is that when you’re looking at some of the soil moisture maps that are out there, we are probably going into spring right now with some fairly dry soils.”