Hundreds of cattle died in the snowstorm which swept across the province over the May 1 weekend, as the toll rises from the soggiest, coldest spring in recent memory.
Animals trapped in mud, snow, and water expired in cold and wet conditions, succumbing to exposure, suffocating or dying under the hooves of other animals vainly crowding together for shelter.
“We’ve seen over 100 individual animals that were killed during the storm, either trapped or drowned or, in some cases, being trampled,” said Dr. Roger Richard, a veterinarian at Virden, in describing the region around his vet clinic. “I’ve been here since ’91 in Virden and I haven’t seen anything to this extent in that period of time.”
The storm, which dumped up to 50 cm of snow in some northern regions of the province and between 20 and 30 mm of precipitation across the south worsened an already severe flooding situation throughout the province.
Richard said producers did their best to save cattle, hauling calf shelters to pastures and trying to get animals out of the mud to higher ground. Often, however, it was too late.
“It’s pretty disheartening for a lot of producers,” Richard said.
Officials at the Manitoba Beef Producers office in Winnipeg received an outpouring of phone calls from producers who lost animals to the storm. One producer in the Elkhorn area reported losing 45 yearlings.
Producers who were already stressed by flooding are now even worse off, said Major Jay Fox, MBP president.
“It’s everywhere. Water is everywhere. Everybody’s under a lot of pressure,” said Fox. “It’s wet and it’s ugly.”
Meanwhile, Brandon city officials were scrambling to shore up dikes in that community earlier this week and the military was called in to help protect properties along the Assiniboine River as higher-than-expected flows threatened to spill its banks. A faulty gauge assessing flows in Saskatchewan resulted in erroneously low estimates of the water flowing into the Manitoba watersheds.
Seeding operations, just underway in some parts of the province, were stopped in their tracks by another rainy weekend, and as of early this week, there was more rain in the forecast.
Cattle producers are now worried about running out of feed.
While pastures are starting to turn green, many are inaccessible because of high water. In some cases, herds stand isolated on hilltops.
“There’s only so many hills in Manitoba. Honest to goodness, we’re going to run out of high land pretty soon,” Fox said.
Larry Schweitzer, owner of Hamiota Feedlot Ltd., said some farmers cannot reach their cattle and the animals may run short of feed. More than 700 municipal roads in the province have been severed in spots by overland flooding and many more have been rendered impassable.
“If the roads are being broken by the water, how do you get the feed to them?” said Schweitzer. “Some of the places where (producers) have to go to, you wouldn’t dare drive in there. You’d be there for most of the spring.”
Schweitzer’s own feedlot was under threat last week from flooding, with only one road still open to haul feed in and transport cattle out.
Schweitzer estimated he had 10 days’ worth of feed on hand for over 10,000 cattle wallowing in mud-filled pens.
“If we lose any more roads, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
Other western Manitoba feedlots were virtually cut off by flood waters, too.
Chris Routledge, who owns Routledge Stock Farms at Lenore, was being forced to take an out-of-the-way route on a lone gravel road in “terrible, terrible shape.”
“We have access but we’re probably going an extra 2-1/2 hours just to get right back to our place again,” Routledge said.
Some of the wettest conditions are in the chronically flooded Shoal Lakes region northwest of Stonewall in the Interlake. Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives Minister Stan Struthers and other provincial officials toured the region May 5 to observe the flooding firsthand.
The province said late last week it is continuing to work with 34 producers in the area, ensuring there is feed in place as well as plans to move herds if necessary due to rising lake levels.
Landowners in the area are demanding per-acre payments from the province to compensate for flooded land that cannot be used.
Struthers said he was considering an assistance program but was vague on details.
“As agriculture minister, what I’m interested in is making sure that farmers have some support from now until that long-term solution, whatever it may be, is put in place.”
Struthers said he has written to Ottawa seeking federal involvement in such a program.
“Of course, if the federal government wants to participate with us, I’m all for that. But, in my view, we need to be moving forward very quickly because we’ve got some ranchers who are right up against the wall today.”
Stewart Tataryn, who raises cattle at St. Laurent near the edge of Lake Manitoba, has 500 head sitting in mud on the yard and “doing terrible.”
Most of Tataryn’s land is under water and he may not even be able to put cattle out on pasture this year.
“Stressed right out – right at the limit,” was the way Tataryn described the way he felt.
But he added: “You have to keep going. You’ve got animals to feed. You’ve got to care for them. There’s no ifs, buts or maybe.” [email protected]
– MAJOR JAY FOX, MBP