Dry spell could force Alberta ranchers to sell cattle prematurely

Some ranchers might have to sell their cows early this year, thanks to a drought that is stunting crop production across the Prairies.

'There's definitely a challenge ahead,' said chair of Alberta Beef producers

Cattle graze near Black Diamond, Alta., on May 13, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Some ranchers might have to sell their cows early this year, thanks to hot, dry weather that is stunting crop production across the Prairies.

"There's definitely a challenge ahead … if this thing carries on it could be a big chunk of the industry that's making tough choices," said Alberta Beef Producers chair Charlie Christie. "There's going to be cows going to market that wouldn't normally. The writing's on the wall there. How many, is yet to be seen."

The dry spell, which stretches back to last summer, isn't province-wide, Christie said, but is hitting isolated areas — especially in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan — hard.

"If we keep this heat coming and we don't see some decent moisture in the near future, it really is tough on the grass, tough on cattle that are grazing, they'll have to be pulled off grass early and the feed situation is kind of in the same boat."

Laverne Gill farms near Medicine Hat. He said that he needs to sell about 30 bushels of grain to break even, as his fixed costs are high.

"It's dry. Our crop yields are probably going to be in the 20 [bushels]. We'd like to see at least 30s. It's definitely going to impact us," he said. "It's difficult."

Climate change a big factor: professor

A "perfect" storm of factors have come together to create this year's hot and dry conditions, said Dr. Mary-Ellen Tyler, who is a professor of environmental design at the University of Calgary. 

But the biggest impact? Climate change.

"We're going to have to adapt," Tyler said. "It could be a long-term trend … we need to start thinking about it now because it's not going to go away within the next 20 to 50 years and only likely become a little more acute without action in the next five to 10."

Tyler said right now, much of the conversation around water management is based on so-called "blue flow," or water in streams and rivers. But, 70 per cent of water within the water cycle is actually held within the landscape — "green flow" — and that's not being managed well, as a lot of land is being used for maximum production output rather than conservation.

She said right now, different parts of the cycle are managed by separate provincial departments. But she'd rather see landowners, and municipal and provincial governments work together to address the water management.

"The economic impact of climate change has not really been on the radar screen and we really do need .... to begin to show people the evidence of the consequences of what this really means and why we need to make it a public issue," she said. 

Alberta's government said there are two financial support programs in place right now to help ranchers and farmers hit hard by the weather. 

With files from Francois Joly, Brooks DeCillia, Dave Dormer, The Calgary Homestretch