Hay donation saves life's work of Ottawa area farmer

Willy O'Rouke was one of 90 area cattle farmers to benefit from Hay East, a grassroots movement in Alberta shipping feed to drought-stricken producers in Ontario.
Fitzroy Harbour farmer Willy O'Rouke was in deep trouble until he was chosen for Hay East donations. 2:12

A local cattle farmer got a late Christmas gift this week — 32 bales of hay from a farmer near Edmonton. But for recipient Willie O'Rouke, it came just in time to save his life's work.

For three decades, O'Rouke has been breeding and raising Charolais cattle, whose cream-coloured, shaggy coats make them easily recognizable.

But the past summer's drought in the region hit local hay stocks hard making the staple feed difficult if not impossible to grow in such dry conditions. The local shortage caused the available hay to nearly quadruple in price.

Some cattle farmers opted to cut mounting losses and sold their entire stock, but with his relatively small herd — 30 head at present — O'Rouke decided to hang on.

"I did sell some cows, my calves which are normally sold later in the year, were sold earlier in the year because I didn't have any feed," he said.

But as winter descended on the valley, O'Rouke faced the very real possibility that he too would have to do what so many already had done: get out of the beef business.

O'Rouke's cows munch on some very special Alberta hay. (CBC)

"It's been 30 years that I've been breeding Charolais cattle ... to get where I want to be," he said. "And if I have to start selling that, it's a disaster."

Then came what O'Rouke calls the best Christmas present of all — a load of hay donated by a farmer in Alberta.

Ten years ago, farmers in eastern Ontario organized under the banner of Hay West, and started an assistance program for drought-stricken farmers in Alberta. It was a grassroots movement that shipped much-needed hay to Western Canada.

This year, western farmers are returning the favour and the first shipments of hay began arriving in Ontario in October.

O'Rouke was one of 90 livestock producers in the area selected from 300 applicants to receive a load of hay from the most recent Hay East shipment. When the Fitzroy Harbour farmer got the call earlier this week, he could harldy believe his luck.

"It was tremendous. It was unbelievable," he said. "[That farmer] could be selling this hay and getting a huge amount of money given the price of hay, but he's giving it to me. It's tremendous."

Along with the donation was a handwritten note containing a heartfelt message that bridged the miles between the two farmers - both well aware of the struggles producers face.

"He said, 'I hope this helps out,' and it's certainly going to help out," O'Rouke said. "He considers me his neighbour, and he lives an hour north of Edmonton and still considers me his neighbour."

"Thank you, thank you very much. This is certainly going to make a big difference for me."

The remainder of hay coming to the region courtesy of Hay East is expected to arrive in January.