Jill Verwey is not hauling water to her cattle, although plenty of her neighbours have had to at some point this year.
Like most with cattle in Manitoba, Verwey’s beef, grain and dairy operation near Portage la Prairie is dry. Feed is short. Pastures are browning and she has watched with concern as dugouts drop and water sources in other areas fail completely.
Manitoba is in a feed crisis, but water has also been critically low and both water volumes and water quality have suffered.
“We did a lot of deepening of our dugouts last year, the ones that were critical,” she said. “So those ones kind of had some recharge from over the winter months and certainly last fall. We got quite a bit of moisture last fall.”
That deepening, as well as a shallow water table, has saved them from the pumping and hauling that producers have dealt with elsewhere in the province.
As the vice-president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers, Verwey has heard a wealth of concerns over water and feed this year, culminating in a feed crisis that has sent 12 municipalities in the Interlake spiralling into agricultural emergency.
Recent rains, some over 50 millimetres in a space of a few days, have not eliminated the concern, although the province says some areas have seen recharge.
Dugouts were 60 to 70 per cent full in the southwest, according to the Sept. 3 crop report, and some streams were running again after going dry. Likewise, conditions in central Manitoba had improved “somewhat,” and water was 80 per cent adequate in the east, the report read.
Shawn Cabak, provincial livestock specialist in central Manitoba, said he has heard of producers hauling or pumping water, moving cattle as water ran low or digging new wells or dugouts this year.
“The recent rains have replenished dugouts, so they’re not as low or as critical as it was, but there are still some areas that are short of water,” he said.
The situation is still critical in parts of the northwest and Interlake. Dugouts in the Interlake were still in decline as of Sept. 3 and only 40 per cent of the region’s water supply was adequate, according to the crop report. In the northwest, dugouts were still running out.
It is hard to offer a blanket statement for her region, northwest livestock specialist Pam Iwanchysko said. Some areas have seen three to four inches in the last weeks, while others are still watching dugouts dwindle. Areas north of Ste. Rose are unlikely to have seen much improvement, she added, even though rains fell on the region.
“Most of their dugouts had gone dry, and I don’t think the recent rains would have replenished the moisture there as of yet. I’m guessing they’ll need a lot more,” she said.
There has been at least one case of livestock poisoning due to low-quality water this year.
Dr. Lisa Taylor of the Arborg Animal Hospital and Gimli Veterinary Services confirmed seven cattle deaths at a farm in the Interlake this summer due to toxic blue-green algae.
“What ended up happening is they had a pond that had been stagnant because the animals hadn’t been on that pasture in the summer until that point and then they were moved and drank from it and died,” she said.
She estimates a total 10 animals were impacted.
The case came out of a “perfect storm” of factors, Taylor said, with summer heat and water levels allowing the algae to grow, while the pasture had not been grazed, leaving the problem to percolate unbeknownst to the farmer. Algae growth will likely ease now that weather is cooling, she added.
Levels of solids and sulphates, however, will not ease with cooler weather. In 2017, a community pasture in Saskatchewan made headlines after over 200 cattle died due to high sulphates and dissolved solids in the water.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture warns that sulphate levels as low as 500 to 800 parts per million may begin to affect calves, well below the 1,500 parts per million limit before water is rated as “poor.” The ministry recommends a maximum 1,000 parts per million if feed is also high in sulphates.
The concern is relevant in Iwanchysko’s area.
“Some (farmers) have been taking the chance and allowing their livestock to go into these very shallow dugouts and then they run the risk of contamination and the buildup of nutrients in there,” she said.
Water testing is perhaps less common in Manitoba than in drier areas of the Prairies, although provincial specialists still say they encourage farmers to test if they are concerned.
Taylor, likewise, says she commonly speaks to producers about water monitoring, although it is unknown how many of them act on that advice.
“A lot of these guys have alternate sources, right? So if they’re suspicious or they’re worried about it, they all get well water and then use that rather than the dugouts,” she said.
Verwey’s farm does test their winter water previous to moving cattle in the fall, Verwey said.
“Up until now, I don’t think that’s been a major concern,” she said, particularly when compared to concerns of just having enough water in the first place.
She and her family are out in the pasture on at least a weekly basis to monitor dugout levels, she said.
They will be back out in the pasture after harvest to gauge if dugouts need to be deepened again, she added.
“Quite often they’ll be fine for a number of years when water levels are high, you don’t have to worry about it, but we’re in some pretty sandy, silty areas where it doesn’t take long for your dugout to fill back in,” she said.