'Trying times': Some Manitoba farmers feel the heat as hot, dry summer hits hay yields
'It's very serious if you don't have a bale of hay to feed in February. You sell your cows'
Hot, dry weather in many parts of Manitoba this summer has damaged hay and grass production for some cattle farmers in the province, agricultural groups say, and could force some producers to downsize their herds later on.
Soaring temperatures and low precipitation levels have left some of the hardest-hit farmers with yields roughly half or a third the size that's usual for the period, according to Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association.
"It's a long time till we see green grass once it quits this year," said Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
"How do you keep your inventory of livestock until May if you have to start feeding on the first of September?"
Campbell, who raises Limousin cattle near Minto, Man., about 200 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, said his region saw lower-than-average precipitation levels early in the season and throughout July.
The lower hay and forage yields mean affected cattle producers will have less to feed their animals over the winter. For those without alternative feed sources, that could force them to sell off animals, hurting their bottom lines.
"It's very serious if you don't have a bale of hay to feed in February. You sell your cows," Campbell said.
"You match your resources to the cow inventory that you have, so you either find more resources or you reduce your cow herd. Those are the only two options that you have, so there could be significant culling this fall."
Late last month, Manitoba Agriculture sent out a news release reminding affected farmers they could get help through the AgriInsurance or AgriStability programs and the Manitoba Hay Listing Service, which allows producers to list hay, pasture or alternative feed that's needed or wanted.
'Nothing in the bank'
It remains to be seen how the weather will impact other types of farms, Campbell said. So far, oil seeds and corn appear to be faring all right, he said, but soybean production may be affected without timely rains in August.
The hot weather is hurting yields for crops like soybeans, canola and barley, he said.
"Anything above 28 degrees [C] in low humidity just sucks the life," he said.
"The top pods in those soybeans are not filling. The top pods in the canola are not filling. We're losing every day in our yield."
The precipitation levels aren't far off normal in some parts of the province, Campbell said, but after a dry season last year, soil moisture levels aren't high enough to compensate.
"Last year we didn't have quite as much rain, but we had a reserve in the ground. It was like our bank account, our savings account, and we were able to draw on the savings account," he said.
"Well, there's nothing in the bank this year. We're relying on the rain that falls from the sky and it hasn't been enough."
Dave Koslowsky, a farmer near Killarney, Man., and past chairman of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, said he uses rotational grazing for his cattle, moving them from one pasture to another to allow each area to grow back, but he's not seeing the usual level of regrowth.
"It's definitely not a five-alarm fire, but we are dry. We're concerned," he said. "We're concerned about pasture regrowth, about hay regrowth for the fall."
Darren Chapman, current chairman of the forage and grassland association, said his own cattle operation near Virden, Man., is faring well so far. Other producers in his region are seeing hay yields of roughly half or two-thirds the size of normal, he said.
"It's going to take its toll on them, yeah, maybe not physically, but mentally," he said. "You're supposed to be supporting your family and feeding everyone."
Campbell cautioned farmers to remember to care for themselves, as well as their crops, if they're feeling the heat.
"Trying times. When you get to this type of deal, we always wonder about farmers' ability to cope," Campbell said.
"I know it's going to be tough, but think safety first and your mental health. You'll get by, and if you need help, search for help. Talk to neighbours, there's the Manitoba rural stress line.… Your health is far more important than the crop."
Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services offers telephone and online counselling to farmers, rural and northern Manitobans. You can reach them by phone at 204-571-4180 or 1-866-367-3276 or visit www.supportline.ca to chat with a counsellor.