Western drought is be­com­ing an agri­cul­tural night­mare

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - ALBERTA - KELLY CRYDERMAN CALGARY

Hot, dry weather has trig­gered vi­cious cy­cles for many farm­ers while feed­ing lit­tle more than long-term fears about a parched fu­ture

When farmer Lynn Grant looks over his land just 30 kilo­me­tres from the U.S. bor­der in Val Marie, Sask., he sees a panorama of dried-up grass, and “not much of it.” Find­ing fall and win­ter feed for his 1,000 cows will be a chal­lenge, and many of his cat­tle-pro­duc­ing neigh­bours face the same prob­lem. “Eighty to 90 per cent of this year’s growth did not get any higher than last year’s stub­ble,” Mr. Grant said of his hay fields. In a world scorched by high tem­per­a­tures, Canada’s Western prov­inces – home to more than 80 per cent of Canada’s farmable lands – have been the coun­try’s hot spot this week. On Fri­day, the fore­cast highs in Medicine Hat, Alta., and Me­d­ina, Saudi Ara­bia, were both in the low 40s. Weeks of hot weather across the Prairies and in Bri­tish Columbia, com­bined with a lack of rain in some ar­eas, are hit­ting many agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers and cre­at­ing long-term wor­ries about how parched fu­ture years will be. Warmer tem­per­a­tures mean even when the rains come, evap­o­ra­tion can wick much of the mois­ture away. At this point in the year, af­ford­able feed for live­stock is the main con­cern. Cat­tle pro­duc­ers and dairy farm­ers, from Van­cou­ver Is­land to the In­ter­lake re­gion of Man­i­toba, point to dwin­dling stocks of hay and grain for their herds. Farm­ers usu­ally need to source feed them­selves or nearby for it to make eco­nomic sense, and this year many pro­duc­ers will have to sell off sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of their herds far ear­lier than nor­mal. Ex­tended heat also stresses cat­tle: It can af­fect their abil­ity to gain weight and re­duce milk pro­duc­tion in dairy herds. The same dry story does not ap­ply across the board – there is a patch­work of con­di­tions across the West. In some ar­eas, spo­radic rains and thun­der­storms have given the land what it needs to sup­port crop growth. But as Pa­trick Ch­er­neski, man­ager of the coun­try’s Na­tional Agro­cli­mate In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice, said: “A gen­eral rule of thumb is tem­per­a­tures above 30 C start to ad­versely af­fect plant growth.” There are big swaths of dis­tress. For in­stance, the lands be­tween Lake Man­i­toba and Lake Win­nipeg have suf­fered ex­tended pe­ri­ods of drought con­di­tions, as well as other parts of Man­i­toba. Tom Te­ichroeb, in­terim pres­i­dent of the Man­i­toba Beef Pro­duc­ers, said this kind of weather sets off a vi­cious cy­cle: It drives up com­mod­ity prices for live­stock feed and drives down the value of an­i­mals. And when times are good again, pro­duc­ers have to buy in dur­ing a pe­riod of high prices. A deadly tor­nado that touched down ear­lier this month just north of Mr. Te­ichroeb’s Lan­gruth-area farm didn’t even bring any pre­cip­i­ta­tion. “There are folks up there that are talk­ing about liq­ui­dat­ing, sim­ply be­cause there is no feed avail­able to them,” he said. “The right word is pa­thetic.” In Saskatchewan, the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture says many parts of the south­west, south-cen­tral and even the west-cen­tral re­gions of the prov­ince haven’t re­ceived any sig­nif­i­cant rain since June. Shan­non Friesen, a Moose Jaw­based crops ex­ten­sion spe­cial­ist, said in some ar­eas fields have not re­ceived more than two inches of rain for months. Provincewide, hay yields that usu­ally feed live­stock are 10-per-cent to 75-per­cent less than typ­i­cally ex­pected. Last year was also ex­tremely dry, Ms. Friesen added, but there was then a healthy store of sub­soil mois­ture. And the rain­fall that some­times comes in July – that has of­ten “res­cued” farm­ers in other dry years – didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize in 2018, she said. “If we do not see sig­nif­i­cant mois­ture this fall, or a lot of snow­fall this win­ter or early next spring, things could worsen for us,” she said. In Al­berta, the Agri­cul­ture and Forestry de­part­ment says that sev­eral lands across south­ern Al­berta have seen less than 10 mil­lime­tres of rain since July 15 – far less than is needed to sus­tain a crop. In many parts of the south­ern prov­ince, mois­ture ac­cu­mu­la­tion for the past three months is the low­est rain­fall level in as long as 25 years. In a few pock­ets, there are 50-year lows. In many re­spects, the strat­egy is now about adap­ta­tion. Many farm­ers don’t nec­es­sar­ily use the phrase “cli­mate change,” or reg­u­larly talk about man-made car­bon emis­sions rais­ing the Earth’s tem­per­a­ture. But they do talk about it get­ting hot­ter and drier. On Van­cou­ver Is­land, Brian Geiger – sec­re­tary for the Co­mox Val­ley Farm­ers’ In­sti­tute – said the past 10 years have been the hottest he’s ex­pe­ri­enced in his four decades on the is­land. Mr. Geiger, a for­mer dairy farmer who now grows hay crops, said any feed that can’t be sourced lo­cally be­cause of the dry con­di­tions this sum­mer will have to be brought in from the main­land at great cost. Longer-term, there is talk of the re­gional district build­ing ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems, and farm­ers them­selves are dig­ging la­goons to store the win­ter wa­ter for sum­mer. Like­wise in Saskatchewan, Mr. Grant said he and other farm­ers are look­ing at stor­ing much larger grass feed caches – a huge drag on their yearly in­comes – to en­sure they can feed their cat­tle in times of drought. “You have to re­mem­ber the name of the game is sur­vival.”


A farmer bales hay near Cre­mona, Alta. Western farm­ers are see­ing weak crops be­cause of the drought, forc­ing many to sell live­stock early and at lower prices as feed be­comes scarcer and more ex­pen­sive.


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