'Worst fears are being realized' for cattle producers suffering amid drought: association president

Some cattle farmers in say they're ready to give up their livelihoods, or close to that point, as weather conditions worsen.

'You could always formulate a plan. I'm not sure what the plan should be right now,' says Interlake rancher

Manitoba cattle farmer Dianne Riding says her herds are depleting due to the drought. (Submitted by Dianne Riding)

Livestock producers are struggling to maintain their livelihoods during the ongoing drought in Manitoba, which the industry association for the province's beef producers calls a "natural disaster."

Manitoba Beef Producers is currently working with the provincial government and other groups like the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation to find ways to help the struggling agricultural industry, the organization said in a statement Thursday. 

"The conditions are continuing to deteriorate. Pastures are dried up with really nothing left for the animals to graze," Manitoba Beef Producers president Tyler Fulton said in a Thursday interview with CBC. 

"Our entire feed production, there's very little prospect in some spots to secure any feed for the fall and winter months."

Economic stability for farmers is drying up along with the pasture, he says.

"Our worst fears are being realized. We've got scenarios where producers are forced to sell the animals — in some cases all of their animals."

Nearly every part of Manitoba has seen rainfall amounts well below seasonal normals, according to the province's latest crop weather report. In some areas, the amount of rain has been less than half of normal.

The situation is dire and widespread, Fulton says, spanning not just Manitoba but portions of northwestern Ontario and west to B.C.

In the short term, farmers are dealing with the crisis by focusing on producing as much feed as they can in the province, he said.

Fulton says producers would also be helped by a quick declaration to make producers eligible for the federal livestock tax deferral program — which allows producers in designated drought-stricken areas to defer paying income tax on the sale of some or all of their herds.

But in the longer term, an agricultural recovery program is needed, Fulton said. His organization is working with counterparts in other provinces to form the details.

It's important to consider the mental health toll the situation is taking on cattle farmers, Fulton said.

"You can imagine, when they're looking at being forced to sell their productive capacity — their farm's viability — it's an extremely stressful time," he said. 

"Knowing that these operations have three or four generations farming that same land, it's an amazing weight to bear."

Cattle farmers unsure about future

As a lifelong cattle farmer in the Interlake region, Dianne Riding is worried about losing her cows for good. 

"It might be the first time in my life where I don't own one, and that says a lot.… Through other tough times, you could always formulate a plan. I'm not sure what the plan should be right now."

Riding says as of Thursday, she has started feeding her cattle pellet supplements, which she says is unusual in July. The state of her pasture is what it should be like in the late fall, not mid-summer.

"As we watch our pastures burn up and hay fields burn, plus the fact that we've had grasshoppers — we've had them go through once already … and I don't know what they're going to eat this round. There's really nothing left."

Riding says she's on the verge of losing her cattle. She's never been without cows on her family-run farm. (Submitted by Dianne Riding)

This year's drought isn't new for Riding — she's in her fourth consecutive year of not having enough moisture to farm. She tries to maintain a herd of 125 but has already sold many of her cattle, and says more sales are likely.

"It's not looking great. I'm not unique. I have some friends that have sold everything and are now out of the cattle business in the last week or two."

The drought will have a long-term effect not just on the cattle industry, but also for other livestock producers, Riding says.

Water woes, job prospects

Irrigation is not feasible either for most farmers. Riding says she's never seen all five of the dugouts on her property completely dry, but she adds she's lucky to have wells in between her two properties.

Even they may not be enough, she says.

"My biggest fear is if I were to try to water the pasture, I would run my well out of water. That is a big fear for a lot of folks … will the well run dry?"

The lifelong farmer says she may have to go back to working in retail, but she'd rather not think quite that far ahead yet. 

Riding says her municipality of Woodlands is not currently under a state of emergency and she doesn't know why. Other municipalities like St. Laurent, which her property borders, have declared an agricultural state of emergency.

Riding echoes Fulton's sentiments about the mental health toll on farmers and says reaching out to hotlines, or simply talking to someone, can help.

She hopes others will be able to make it through, and says provincial and federal help needs to come soon.

"I understand they have protocols, but sometimes it seems like they're just dragging their feet."

Ralph Eichler, who was named the province's new agriculture minister on Thursday, says the province will act quickly. 

"We will build programs to make sure our farmers are there to be sustained short and long term," Eichler said at a news conference at the legislature Thursday.

Farmers can expect the province to respond to their needs "in a timely manner," he said.


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.

With files from Riley Laychuk