On the brink: Drought pushes Interlake beef producers to the edge of viability

Will drought see an exodus from the cattle business in Manitoba's Interlake?

Cattle search for grazing on one of the Interlake’s sparse pastures in July.

The pictures coming out of the pastures and hayfields between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg are grim, and they look nothing like July.

Across the field, there is little green on the ground. Brown is the predominant colour, and little stands tall enough to block out the occasional rock or cow-pie.

It’s a visual image that the residents of the Interlake have become all too used to.

Anyone walking into a field in the RM of Grahamdale, “wouldn’t see much,” according to Reeve Craig Howse.

“Nothing’s really growing and now that the grass is starting to die off and turn brown, the grasshoppers have moved in, have started to clean off everything,” he said. “All you’re seeing in the field right now, in the pastures and some of the hay land are just stems.”

Why it matters: Ranchers in the Interlake were still struggling to recover from critically dry conditions in 2019 when 2021 hit. Now conditions are bad enough that producers are selling cattle in July.

It is just one example out of many to emerge out of the Interlake in the last several years, years that local officials and industry now warn might be bringing some cattle operations in the area to a point of no return.

Many farms in the area have had no chance to recover from 2019, a year when dry conditions came to a head. Widespread feed shortages were reported across the province. In the Interlake, pasture supplies dried out, hay yielded little and cattle were moved off the land early. Producers scrambled to bring in feed or culled deeply into their herds, while the poor conditions were later linked to higher open rates in the Interlake, further cutting into farm production.

The poor conditions eventually led 18 municipalities in the Interlake and Parkland to announce states of agricultural disaster that year.

In some of those areas, history seems to be set on repeat.

Brown dominates during what would ordinarily be some of the best grazing of the year in the Interlake in early July. photo: Kristen Stocki

At least five Interlake municipalities have also announced a state of agricultural disaster as of July 9 — including the municipalities of West Interlake, St. Laurent, Coldwell, Grahamdale, and Bifrost-Riverton. Officials from some other, surrounding municipalities have also said the issue is tabled for the next regular council meeting, and the list may grow.

For the mid-size beef farmer, the producer under 200 head, experts and officials now worry that this year might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Tyler Fulton, president of the Manitoba Beef Producers, suggested that while established producers may be able to absorb more of the shock, conditions might be dire for new ranchers without established equity, who are now being forced to sell their cattle.

“It’s a dire situation with respect to whether or not they will maintain viability next year,” he said. “That’s a huge question.”

The livestock industry in general is facing a test, he added.

“We have an extremely resilient group of producers who are really innovative in figuring out how best to deal with the situation hat we’re dealt, but the reality is there’s going to be long-term consequences to it, just in the same way that there was after the BSE outbreak and the trade consequences that led to the market downturn and a large amount of the producer base leaving the business because it just wasn’t economically viable anymore,” he said.

Herd hit

Drought has forced enough producers to sell cattle that the Ashern Auction Mart arranged an emergency cattle sale July 7, the first time in manager Kirk Kiesman’s memory that the auction has held a sale in July.

The sale drew nearly 500 cattle, according to a post on the auction’s social media, including 13 cow-calf pairs, 56 bulls, 176 feeders and 235 cows.

“This is worse than 2019,” Kiesman said, adding that the region has seen both less rain this year and is suffering the cumulative effects of three dry years in a row, something that has sucked out the moisture reserves of the region and, thanks to friendly laying and hatching conditions, helped give rise to a virtual plague of grasshoppers cleaning out what little forage there is.

Pastures in the Interlake show little green ground cover in early July. photo: Paul Gregory

It is also not limited to the Interlake, he noted. While conditions between Ashern and the southern Interlake are “all bad, all the way,” the July 7 sale also saw cattle from places like Ethelbert, well into the Parkland.

Many young producers trying to build herds in the region have already left the business, forced to sell in the wake of 2019, RM of West Interlake Reeve Arnthor Jonasson said.

“They’re gone,” he said. “It’ll take years for them to come back. This year, if there’s no rain, you’re going to lose cow herds that are 100 to 150 cows.

“The land will always be used, probably, for cattle,” he added. “But it’s going to be sort of the end of the family farms. Larger and larger entities will take over.”

The result, he worries, might be a hit to the fabric of the local communities as families move away.

It’s a concern shared by Jonasson’s fellow reeves.

“What’s happening is we’re losing our farmers. We’re losing our family farms and it’s going to impact municipalities throughout Manitoba,” RM of St. Laurent Reeve Cheryl Smith said. “It’s not easy, first of all, to invest and to go into farming. Not just anybody can do it. You have to come from some kind of background and knowledge to continue these family farms. To lose that is devastating, not just for the municipalities but for everybody, because that’s where our food comes from.”

The RM of St. Laurent became the first municipality to declare a state of agricultural disaster July 6.

Howse, meanwhile, suggested that older farmers might take the chance to retire.

As bad as it’s ever been

The tone and details echo in many of the stories to emerge from the region — there is little pasture, little water (save what producers haul in) and little hay. Whatever’s left, grasshoppers are eating.

“Normally this time of year, everybody’s in a hayfield,” Tom Johnson of St. Laurent said.

Now, however, the fields are largely empty as producers find little worth the time and cost of harvest.

“Us, we rely on a lot of wild hay,” Johnson said. “We have a little bit of tame hay… but it’s just so dry that nothing’s growing. The pastures are going dry. The dugouts are drying up.”

Even low areas, a saving grace for the farm for the last few dry years, have little to offer in terms of feed this year.

Jonasson, meanwhile has maybe 20 bales to show for two to three days of work, although he added that he does have 70 acres of silage, planted in anticipation of a dry season.

One of many thin crop stands struggle in the dry conditions blanketing the Interlake in July. photo: Kristen Stocki

“Basically, there’s nothing there, but you’ve just got to clean it up and hope that there will be a good shot of rain some time so we can get a second cut,” he said.

Looking for lifeline

Municipalities say they hope aid is incoming, now that states of agricultural disaster have been announced.

On July 8, Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen said he had met with the Manitoba Beef Producers, Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association and Association of Manitoba Municipalities, in an effort to develop strategies to maintain the province’s base livestock herds.

The four groups have been asked to consult their membership for priorities and will meet with Pedersen’s department again in several weeks, the minister said.

“The idea is to develop a plan with the industry rather than government or particular industry trying to come up with one. We’re all going to work together,” he said.

Pedersen also pointed to the province’s review of forage insurance, which saw the first changes to the program this year, as well as the province’s move earlier this year to open non-agricultural Crown lands for temporary haying and grazing.

Municipalities have given few early details on specific aid they’d like to see pursued.

Some local producers have accessed Ag Action Manitoba programming to develop water sources, Smith said.

Others, meanwhile, have said they would like to see some kind of aid pertaining to feed.

“(Farmers) need to have the light at the end of the tunnel,” Jonasson said. “They need to know soon, too. There’s a lot of concern. There’s a lot of emotional angst. People are not seeing any option how they can get out of this.”

There has not been any push yet to activate AgriRecovery, the federal-provincial disaster program, Howse noted, although he added that might yet change.

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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