Farmers struggle to feed their herds with grass failing to grow in scorched earth
Trickle-down effect on cattle from lingering drought in Canada
The pastures on Craig Todd’s ranch in western Canada are so scorched by all the hot, dry weather in recent months that his cattle have little to eat.
After spending C$10,000 (Dh29,803) on extra feed pellets - an unplanned expense for a herd that should be munching on free grass - Mr Todd is now considering selling as many as 50 animals to get through winter.
“I might knock a few more off” to reduce costs, says Mr Todd, whose raises cattle on land an hour’s drive west of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. “Going into next year, if we don’t get any rain, I’m in as much trouble as most people are.”
For Canada, the world’s sixth-largest beef exporter, a worsening drought across the southern Prairie provinces has probably ended any chance of a rebound for the domestic cattle industry. The herd was hit by several cases of mad-cow disease more than a decade ago, followed by floods and labor shortages. In 2015, it shrank to a 22-year low.
The herd was expected to expand slightly this year, but deteriorating grazing conditions have driven up the price of hay used as feed to as much as C$200 a tonne, twice as much as a year earlier. Some ranchers will cull more animals from their herds to reduce costs after parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta got less than 60 per cent of normal rainfall since April 1, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a government agency.
In Saskatchewan, pastures and hay land have suffered greatly from the lack of moisture and will need significant rainfall, the province’s agriculture ministry said last week in a report. Thirty-five per cent of the province’s pastures are in poor condition and 30 per cent are rated "very poor", it said.
“This drought pretty much takes herd growth off the table,” says Brian Perillat, a senior analyst at Calgary-based Canfax. “There will be a few guys short of feed who will have to cull a little harder.”
Ranchers held 12.95 million cattle as of July 1, up less than 1 per cent from a year earlier, according the the most-recent data available from Statistics Canada. Since then, with pastures drying up and the cost of feed rising, some producers probably will unload more animals by selling young cattle or sending breeding cows to be slaughtered.
With concern that more cattle will be sold, prices already are dropping. Cows sold for slaughter fetch about 86 Canadian cents a pound, down from 91 cents a year earlier, according to data compiled by Canfax, the market analysis division of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. Steer calves weighing 250 kilograms are down 15 per cent since the spring, to about C$2.15 a pound, while heifers dropped even more, to C$1.87 a pound from C$2.22 earlier this year.
“There will be some people who will be weaning calves earlier and selling calves earlier than they normally would,” says Rich Smith, the executive director of Calgary-based Alberta Beef Producers. “Their grass is in poor condition, as you’d expect from lack of rainfall, and they’re deeply worried about fire.”
There is little drought-relief in sight for Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba, says Brett Anderson, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather. Precipitation across the region will be below normal, with a higher-than-average risk of fires, he said.
In Alberta, Canada’s largest beef producer, 37 per cent of pastures are in poor condition, the province’s agriculture ministry said this month. Warm, dry weather has depleted soil moisture, especially in the southern and central regions, according to the report.
In parts of Saskatchewan, hay prices are running between C$160 and C$200 a tonne, up from about C$80 a year earlier, says Don Connick, who farms and runs a small cattle herd in Gull Lake. The area got just 2 inches of rain all season, about a quarter of what is normal, and some pastures have been extremely overgrazed, he said.
Pastures in the area “are pretty dismal”, Mr Connick sys. “We’ve had an extremely hot, dry summer here. The grass is all dry and brown.”