Last November, Rhonda MacDonald watched helplessly as a raging flood burst the banks of the Nicola River in the B.C. Interior and swept away 300 tonnes of hay.
It cost Ms. MacDonald $90,000 to replace, triple the amount she made in the fall calf sale.
The flood also buried Ms. MacDonald’s 24-hectare hay field under more than a metre of silt and rock. She’ll be lucky if she can harvest any this year.
“It’s a disaster of biblical proportions,” Ms. MacDonald said. “We wish we didn’t have to sleep at night because there’s so much work to be done. It’s mind blowing.”
Extreme weather events in 2021 have devastated cattle ranchers across Western Canada. Ironically, the B.C. floods wreaked havoc as a drought ravaged the west coast of North America, wiping out the hay harvest and leading to a shortage. Last year, cow hay cost $150 for every U.S. short ton (nearly one metric tonne). This year it costs $250, and it keeps climbing. Ranchers have few options – especially because wildfires across B.C. and drought in Alberta severely damaged the grasslands. Broke, exhausted and predicting a sparse spring and summer, many are selling their stock, which could have implications for Canadian beef supply in the future.
Kevin Wirsta owns K-Cow Ranch in Elk Point, Alta. He is still wrestling to find feed for his cattle and might have to travel up to 10 hours for to secure some.
“We’re managing to find hay, but a lot of time it is a long way away so the trucking costs are horrendous,” he said.
For Mr. Wirsta, spring could not come soon enough. But with the town currently buried in four feet of snow and temperatures hovering around -15 C, Elk Point is unlikely to see grass until late May.
“The calendar says spring is nearby, but mother nature doesn’t say that,” he said.
Even when the snow melts, Mr. Wirsta is concerned there won’t be any grass. Last fall, faced with mounting feed costs, ranchers grazed their cattle until it was gone.
The drought also left the ground parched, unable to absorb the moisture.
“It is definitely going to be an interesting summer,” said Barry Yaremcio, an independent beef consultant based in Alberta.
He says the majority of the province will need above-average rainfall – approximately 15 centimetres – across spring to grow abundant grass. This is not impossible, but it is high stakes. If ranchers run out of feed before that happens, which is likely given the shortage, they might turn to grazing on grass that is too short. This will only cost them in the long term: Every one day of feeding on short grass in the spring costs three days of grazing come fall.
“I’ve been at this for 38 years,” Mr. Yaremcio said. “And this drought is right up there with the worst of the worst.”
In B.C., Ms. MacDonald also awaits spring with trepidation.
Three months before her property was subsumed by flood, her range land was destroyed by the Lytton Creek wildfire. She recalls watching the flames rip across the lands, consuming 20 per cent of her herd and destroying all the grass.
“The firefighters had never seen a fire so huge,” Ms. MacDonald said. “Our land is down to rock in places. It’s burnt black. There will be no grazing for at least another two years.”
The provincial government has offered Ms. MacDonald different land, but it is a two-hour drive away. Hauling the cattle could cost around $6,000 – a challenging expense, given the year she’s had. The land is also unlikely to have infrastructure in place, such as corrals. And since the cows are unfamiliar with the terrain, Ms. MacDonald would need to spend time on the range showing them watering holes and making sure they stick together and don’t get lost.
“Time is a huge factor,” Ms. MacDonald said. “Any time you have to spend out on the range with cattle is time taken away from other tasks that need to be done at home. And this year, the tasks needed to be done at home are actually overwhelming, due to the mess from the floods.” She has not decided whether she will take the offer or rotate her cattle on a neighbour’s land instead.
Some ranchers are selling their calves, based on the likelihood of a sparse spring.
According to a Statistic Canada report released on Monday, in 2021 Canadian cattle herds fell to the lowest level since January, 1989. The BC Livestock co-op told The Globe and Mail that sales have more than doubled. In January and February of 2021, the co-op sold 1,450 cows; during the same months this year, that jumped to 3,600.
John Smith and Laura Laing own Plateau Cattle in Nanton, Alta., a town 100 kilometres south of Calgary. Predicting a feed shortage, they sold 140 cows in the fall. Many were breeding cows, which are the most valuable livestock in cattle ranching.
“From an emotional standpoint it is very difficult,” Ms. Laing said. “You know, sitting in that auction mart watching your best cow go. There are years of genetics put into those. … It’s where the rubber hits the road from an emotional standpoint.”
Mr. Smith and Ms. Laing worry that if they don’t get enough moisture this spring, they will have to sell more cows come fall.
“What is adequate moisture at this point?” Mr. Smith said. “Honestly we need feet of rain, not inches. If it was as dry as last year we would definitely have to restock again. … I couldn’t even tell you what it would look like.”
Selling breeding stock – female cows kept alive to give birth – hurts a rancher’s bottom line and decreases the supply of Canadian beef, potentially driving a shortage. Normally, the new calves are fed and then sold for slaughter. Killing the breeding stock instead dries up supply, and it takes time to raise and replace the females. The increased costs of production, whether it be fuel or feed prices, might trickle down to consumers.
For now, cattle ranchers must contend with the current price increases and focus on how they are going to survive until summer.
Ms. MacDonald says she is not ready to quit, not yet.
“When we pull a cow out of a heifer and she automatically does her job, where she loves that calf, that feeling will never change and it never gets old,” she said. “In the midst of this mess it’s a good reminder that life still goes on. It gives us purpose and reason to keep pushing.”
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