Dairy farmers latest group hit hard by Manitoba drought; desperation sets in

A Manitoba drought that continues to plunge producers into a financial crisis, and it doesn't appear to be going away soon.

Majority surveyed suggest they won't or are unsure they will have enough feed through winter

Many Manitoba dairy farmers said they aren't sure if they will have enough feed to get their cows through winter due a severe drought stunting crops. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

A Manitoba drought continues to plunge producers into a financial crisis, and it doesn't appear to be going away soon.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada surveyed Manitoba producers this week, and 60 per cent said they won't or are unsure they will have enough feed to get through winter.

"Some of the comments that were being made, you could sense the desperation," said David Wiens, vice-president of the organization and a dairy farmer with 200 cows near Grunthal, Man.

"It's heartbreaking to hear when a farmer says, 'Can somebody please help?'"

On top of the feed shortage, the survey also found some dairy farms are going to be out of water in the next few weeks, and many others will be by fall, said Wiens.

WATCH | How the drought is affecting beef producers: 

Canadian ranchers forced to sell, slaughter cattle

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
Canadian ranchers have been forced to sell and even slaughter their cattle in some cases because they can’t afford to feed them. Hay prices have doubled and sources of water dried up — the result of a hot and dry summer.

The province has a program in place for cattle farmers to help subsidize the cost of digging wells and dugouts. Some are incurring additional expenses in the process, he said.

"When they get to the point where they actually don't have water for their cows, that for those farms really is the end of the line," said Wiens. "We're still hoping beyond hope that we're not going to get to that point."

The situation facing dairy farmers is an extension of what's been going on all summer for beef producers. 

Fields across Manitoba are looking much like this — dry, barren and not very productive. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Years poured into managing and growing a herd is being erased as many farmers are being forced to sell off large quantities of cattle to slaughter.

"That's also a very difficult and a last choice option because once the cows are sold they're not coming back," said Wiens. "Farmers are like everyone else, we have our mortgage payments to make." 

Exceptional drought

Droughts come and go, but experts say the unusually prolonged stretches of heat and dryness experienced this summer are likely to become a more common feature on the Prairies due to climate change.

Winnipeg recorded its driest July in nearly 150 years. 

Parts of western and southern Manitoba, as well as the Interlake, are experiencing exceptional drought conditions, according to a recent drought report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The federal agency defines such a drought as a twice in century event.

Demand grows at cattle auction

In Manitoba's Interlake region, the Ashern cattle auction normally doesn't operate through summer. This year is different.

Farmer Kirk Kiesman, second from right, stands in a cattle pasture with his wife and children near Ashern, Man. (Submitted by Kirk Kiesman)

General manager Kirk Kiesman has been operating biweekly emergency cattle sales through summer. They'll soon be hosting auctions weekly due to the consistently large turnouts recently.

More than 2,200 head of cattle were sold at the auction this week; roughly 800 were breeding animals sold to slaughter, he said.

"There's too many animals for us to handle that kind of a load" every two weeks, he said.

Most are beef farmers, though some dairy farmers have turned up to sell too, he said. Most are getting rid of what beef cows they have at auction hoping that will help them keep their dairy cows, which are more valuable in the long run, said Kiesman.

"The biggest issue in Manitoba right now is you can't help your neighbour out even if you wanted to," said Kiesman. 

Lots of 'angry farmers'

The federal and provincial governments provided some funding and tax deferrals to cattle farmers last month. Kiesman said farmers don't think those supports go far enough.

"There's a lot of angry farmers right now," he said.

NDP legislative member Nahanni Fontaine (St. Johns) and her party on Friday called for interest-free 15-year loans for cattle farmers, and for lease payments to be cut in half on Crown lands. 

"If we are to believe what climate change is showing us and the science, this is going to be something long term," she said.

In the short term, prices have spiked for what little feed is left locally. 

Another issue is Manitoba feed being sold to the U.S. as farmers there are facing the same fight.

"A lot of feed stock has left Canada to go south, which makes our price go even higher," said provincial Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler.

Government supports announced

Manitoba and the federal government announced Friday they will increase the previously announced AgriStability benefit for farmers from 50 to 75 per cent. Producers can now access a larger portion of the benefit earlier.

Eichler wants the federal government to expand the number of livestock sectors eligible for drought aid, including sheep, bison and more.

Many dairy farmers could be in the same spot as Manitoba beef producers soon, forced to sell of quantities of their herd when they can't secure enough food for their animals. (Singsamran Pramua/Shutterstock)

"We can't pick winners and we can't pick losers," he said. "We need to make sure they're all protected."

Wiens said there needs to be better co-ordination with crop farmers whose stunted and unmarketable fields might be repurposed for cattle feed.

Some farmers may never recoup their losses. Broader issues could surface industry-wide next year without more support now, Wiens said.

"It has to happen in days … not try to get something in place for next month," said Wiens.

"[That's] too late for many farmers."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Marina von Stackelberg

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