Southwest cattle herds shrivel in prolonged drought

The water in Allan Downey’s cavernous dugout should be 10 feet over his head. Instead, it’s just a small pool at his feet.

It’s not nearly enough to get his cattle through the coming winter.

What Downey prays for is an old-fashioned winter with six-foot snowdrifts and adequate spring run-off to recharge the dugout and maintain his herd.

“We’re hoping we can make it to the end of March if it snows up,” he said.

But the odds don’t look good. Snow was practically missing last winter here in the extreme southwest corner of Manitoba. A dry summer further drained water supplies in the region and left pastures in rough shape.

Timely late-summer rains saved the crop but came too late to recharge badly overgrazed pastures. Downey kept his cattle off pasture until the end of June hoping the paddocks would recover enough to graze. But the hay crop came in at less than half of normal and his alfalfa field today is as parched as a desert.

Drought isn’t the problem for most Manitoba farmers this year. Less than 400 kilometres to the northeast, heavy summer rains flooded pastures throughout the Interlake and Westlake regions, leaving cattle producers with hay they can’t get at and herds many can’t afford to feed.

Here, it’s the flip side. Dusty sloughs and dugouts pockmark the region and the little hay available is generally poor quality.

The irony isn’t lost on producers.

“It’s so dry south and so wet north. It’s bizarre,” said Bob Renwick, whose land is just north of Downey’s.

The immediate concern right now is water. Renwick’s cattle are still on pasture and the dugout there is nearly dry. Renwick is four miles from the Souris River and can’t afford the cost of piping in water from there, even with help from PFRA. He also can’t afford the $4,000 it will cost to have water trucked in. He can haul water from a municipal well 20 kilometres away – but at his own expense.

“You can find feed but you can’t stockpile water,” said Melissa Springer, a MAFRI livestock specialist in Melita.

Water and short hay supplies forced producers in the region to trim their cattle herds all summer. Brian Sterling of Tilston has culled 80 heifers and 40 cows so far. He expects to sell off more animals as winter approaches.

The province this summer launched a forage freight assistance program to help cover the cost of transporting hay from surplus areas to where it’s needed. Intended primarily for flooded Interlake farmers, it covers drought-affected cattle producers in the southwest region, too.

But Sterling said the program is of little use to financially strapped producers when a round bale costs $50 to $60 and cattle are selling well below their cost of production.

Cattle prices are sluggish because of uncertainty over U. S. country-of-origin labelling legislation. Buyers wait to see how COOL plays out before purchasing animals that U. S. packers might not accept six months from now. Spring calves which should be getting $1.20 per pound fetch 90 cents at local auction markets if producers are lucky.

As well, the lasting effects of BSE, even after five years, still hang heavy over cattle producers. Downey is rebuilding 20 years of lost equity after being forced to remortgage the family farm his grandfather homesteaded in 1889. “Would you remortgage your house to keep your job?” he asks, knowing the average city dweller would probably say no.

To keep costs down, Downey whittled away at his herd all summer, pregnancy checking early and selling open cows. Ever the optimist, he figures he can see his roughly 300 cows through the winter if he continues culling judiciously.

But the drought, coming on top of low prices, COOL and BSE, makes Downey wonder if long-suffering producers in his region have finally hit the wall.

“It’s a question most cattle guys are asking.” [email protected]

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