Year in review: Ranchers brace for another short feed winter

It’s a bad case of deja vu for livestock producers facing stressed pastures come 2020

Livestock producers were already starting from behind in 2019.

Producers were already looking at a feed shortage after drought conditions stuck much of the province in 2018, particularly areas of southwest Manitoba and the Interlake. Most of agricultural Manitoba had qualified for the federal livestock tax deferral program in 2018 — a program that allows a producer to defer part of their cattle sales to the next tax year, but requires forage harvest in the region to fall to half or less normal yields.

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Compounding that, farmers were already forced to extend the feeding season at both ends, with a cool, dry spring keeping cattle in the feedlot in early 2018, and drought-stricken pastures forcing producers to start feeding cattle far earlier than usual in the fall.

The first months of 2019 did little to help. Temperatures in January and February dipped beneath -30 C for stretches at a time, further chipping away at feed supplies.

By March, provincial livestock specialists warned that feed supplies were getting thin, while there was little extra feed on the market after the previous dismal year.

Ray Bittner, livestock specialist in the Interlake, warned that already tight ration plans were reaching the end of their rope, while pastures that were already strained from 2018 might delay turnout again, creating the second year in a row of an extended spring feeding season.

Those same livestock specialists also sounded the first alert on fertility problems in the coming breeding season if the feed situation didn’t turn around. Those fears were later realized in some areas. Veterinarians in the Interlake have reported regular open rates between 20 and 30 per cent as of late 2019.

Pressures may have led producers to put their cattle out too early in 2019, further stressing pastures, experts later said.

“Many years, there’s a little bit to eat left on pastures — some residue, but this year there’s very little to eat because the residue was eaten last fall,” Bittner said in late April.

Fearing another short feed year, many producers planned on more greenfeed or silage acres, the province and producers both reported.

Little hope with hay

The start of the haying season offered little optimism.

Lack of rain and poor regrowth radically reduced the first, and normally the heaviest, cut of the year again.

John MacGregor, co-ordinator of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association’s Green Gold hay-monitoring program, estimated that the province’s best cuts only hit 60 per cent of normal as of the end of June, and many fell far below that. The association ultimately estimated that first cuts largely ranged between 40 and 60 per cent of normal, while the worst cuts may have dropped to 10 to 30 per cent.

Many producers found themselves waiting far longer than normal to harvest their first cut, sacrificing some feed value for biomass. First cuts were still underway as of mid-July, compared to the usual early June timeline for much of the province.

“Last year was one of the worst years I’ve ever gone through since 1989,” Glen Metner of Moosehorn said at the time. “In some places, we were doing 50 bales per quarter section. This year, it doesn’t look any better. It’s probably worse.”

Rainstorms bolstered parts of the south later in the season, although both the Parkland and Interlake remained dry.

By late July, producers were already bracing for a bad winter. Concerns over feed were reaching fever pitch in a month later. A dozen municipalities in the Interlake and Parkland declared a state of agricultural disaster in late August, pointing to short feed and a looming cull that they worried would dramatically decrease cattle numbers in their area. That list eventually grew to 16 municipalities.

Producers in those regions were reportedly already feeding on pasture, using up some of the now precious overwintering feed.

Grasshoppers had also become a problem, with producers noting significant forage losses.

While rain promised to improve second cuts in some regions of south central Manitoba, parts of the northwest had “very little to no” second cut, the province said, while producers in the hardest hit areas were already starting to cull.

MacGregor estimated that those areas that did see a second cut reaped up to 80 per cent of normal yield.

Feed concern prompted the province to once again open up additional Crown lands for grazing. A similar program was launched in 2018, although beef producers at the time said that many of those lands had little access and infrastructure difficulties, leading to poor uptake. The province also released multiple newsletters urging producers to consider alternative feeds, as well as to use the provincial hay listing to source hay.

The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association also extended its efforts. The organization announced an online resource focused on hay updates and pricing information. The Keystone Agricultural Producers and Manitoba Beef Producers also launched a hay listing resource page.

The feed situation left even more municipalities eligible for the federal livestock tax deferral than in 2018. A total 96 regions were named eligible for the deferral, compared to 81 the year before.

All dried up

Water worries added to producer anxiety in dry regions. Producers reported hauling or piping water to cattle as dugouts dried out in the first part of the summer.

August rains helped refill dugouts in parts of the south, the province later reported, although the situation remained critical in parts of the northwest and Interlake. As of Sept. 3, only 40 per cent of the Interlake’s water supply was rated “adequate,” and dugouts were still declining.

Water quality issues led to a number of cattle deaths at an Interlake farm, after cattle were put into a paddock with a shallow and stagnant dugout. The dugout had developed toxic blue-green algae, impacting an estimated 10 animals, a Gimli-area vet told the Co-operator.

The looming winter may look depressingly familiar to farmers as they look into 2020.

Feed experts are once again forecasting a winter of creative feed rations as producers reach for everything from feed additives to food processing byproducts.

The province has seen an influx of feed grain after a suddenly wet fall and three-day snowstorm over the Thanksgiving weekend stranded crops. At the same time, that same wet winter put the brakes on silage harvest, sparking further feed concerns and adding yet more complaints of “the year from hell.”

The province has since sponsored a string of workshops hoping to help producers deal with short feed. Above average open rates in some areas have sparked further concern over nutrition.

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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