Hay West calls for federal funds to help ship winter foods for desperate prairie cattle ranchers

The consequences of last summer’s meteoric drought are being felt on farms and ranches across the Prairies, where some ranchers are heading into a long, cold winter with dangerously low supplies of food and water.

At his ranch near Nanton in southern Alberta, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe said he was lucky for the late season rainfall that allowed him to recover some sort harvesting hay. But he said many producers weren’t so lucky.

“Some people have nothing,” Lowe said. “And water is a major concern. In some areas there is no surface water… I haven’t heard of anyone’s wells drying up yet, but that will be the next thing.”

The summer of 2021 will be recorded as one of the most severe and widespread droughts in North America in years. Months of extreme heat and poor precipitation caused crops to wilt in fields in the Prairie provinces and western Ontario. In British Columbia, farmers have also been affected by forest fires and heavy smoke.

“Well below average”

Now that the harvest season is over, the damage is counted. According to a report from the Government of Saskatchewan, crop yields in that province were “well below average” and humidity conditions remain a concern, with significant precipitation needed this fall and winter to replenish humidity levels. soil and water points.

“Many areas of the province will have inadequate winter food supplies,” the report said. “Due to the dry conditions this year, the levels of dugouts, swamps and wells are low and there are concerns about the water supply for livestock.

The Manitoba government warned in a recent report that pastures in that province have suffered from dry conditions for “much of the past two or three years” and that most pastures are rated “fair to very poor” in the past. approaching winter.

Lack of feed has caused prices to skyrocket, so pastoralists looking to purchase additional feed for their herds face costs two to three times higher than normal.

Lowe said financial and mental stress means some producers are already starting to sell herds they’ve spent years building.

“I hear stories of auctions on herds of cattle for sale that just haven’t been offered for sale before,” he said. “There are a lot of people pulling out of the business. They are just fed up with it.”

Hay shipment

To remedy the situation, the national agricultural organization, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), earlier this year launched an initiative called Hay West. The program aims to ship surplus hay from eastern Canada, where growing conditions were good this year, to the Prairie provinces.

Since August, the program has shipped 5.5 million pounds of livestock feed from the Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec to struggling western ranchers and farmers. Another 50 million pounds have been collected and are ready to be shipped by train or truck.

However, FCA Vice President Keith Currie said the organization needed more funding to move this flow. So far, the cost of the Hay West program has been largely covered by private donations (the Canadian National Railway Company recently pledged $ 250,000 to help cover transportation costs), but CFA is calling on the federal government to get involved as well.

“We hope they will escalate,” said Currie. “The more we can get, the better. We’re going to start [with an ask] by millions. “

In August, the federal government pledged drought-affected farmers up to $ 500 million under AgriRecovery, a federal-provincial disaster relief program.

Currie said the focus must be on supporting farmers who have seen their equity dwindle due to the drought, and ensuring that the size of the Canadian beef industry does not become depleted. that it will take years to recover.

Experts have suggested that up to 20 percent of Canada’s beef herd could be sold this fall and winter as producers are forced to downsize their herds or shut their doors completely.

“We continue to focus on the breeding herd in particular, so we still have cattle in place for years to come,” said Currie.

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