Desperate Prairie ranchers are selling cattle early amid drought, lack of feed
Industry experts predict up to half of Sask. beef herds will be sold to slaughter due to drought
Donnie Peacock has been auctioning cattle in southwestern Saskatchewan for more than three decades, but this has been the busiest July he's ever seen — and August is already slated to be even bigger.
However, the auctioneer with Heartland Livestock Services in Swift Current, Sask., takes no joy in this rush to sell off cattle.
"Twenty-five percent to half of our cow herd is just going to disappear with the drought ... and the feed scenario that we're in," Peacock said.
The scorching heat and lack of rain on the Prairies is forcing cattle producers to make tough decisions and sell off cattle they can't afford to feed. Baked pasture grass is nearly gone and, in some cases, water sources have dried up or become toxic to thirsty animals. Meanwhile, hay has doubled or tripled in price.
"People are out of grass, out of water. They have no feed," Peacock said. For farmers who are lucky enough to find some feed, he said, the "big fear" is that even if they are able to survive the winter, next year could be dry too, leaving them with "an impossible hole to climb out of."
Ranchers across Western Canada and south into Montana and North Dakota are thinning their herds, said Lee Crowley, manager of Heartland Livestock Services.
He said producers are not only selling calves off earlier than usual, they're also getting rid of cows used for breeding — a long-term investment.
"All of the people I deal with — and I know everybody — they're going to cut the cow herds in half for sure," Crowley said. "They don't know what to do and selling their livelihood off is very emotional."
Crowley predicts a glut in the market will drive down cow prices and cause greater financial losses for producers.
Brent Brooks runs Northern Livestock Sales, with stockyards across Saskatchewan in Lloydminster, Prince Albert and Meadow Lake. He's also the president of Livestock Marketers of Saskatchewan.
"With this situation we've been hit with, so widespread — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and then stretching up to northern Ontario — our feed stocks are depleted," said Brooks. "There's no place to go other than the slaughter facility."
Brooks said government assistance so far — including some tax deferrals and insurance to cover crops used for feed — has fallen short.
"It's actually devastating to the economy."
Third-generation rancher Scott Campbell had to sell 230 yearling calves two and a half months earlier than normal. It's the only way he can preserve enough pasture to keep his cows and save his operation near Dorintosh, Sask.
"If you kill all those cows this fall, you don't have the calves next spring," Campbell said.
Campbell lost about $200 per animal by selling early. Typically waiting until October would have allowed the yearlings to be heavier, meaning more revenue based on weight. He said he's never seen a summer like this, where it's so hot for so long with no rain.
"My grandma, she grew up in the thirties, in the depression, and she always said, 'Dryness broke people's spirits,'" Campbell said. "When it's dry, it breaks your spirit. So guys will quit for sure, and I'm glad I'm not in that position, but there will be lots of guys that are."
In Swift Current, Donnie Peacock also expects the drought — and depletion of herds — to have long-term consequences for the industry.
"It's kind of a generational, traumatic experience for a lot of people in our cattle industry. We have a lot of people that are going to be making decisions that are lifelong changing right now," he said.
Older people may take the opportunity to sell their entire herds and quit, while younger people, being financially burdened by the situation, may decide to make a living in a different way, Peacock said.
He said the broader farming community is feeling "just devastated."
With files from CBC's Richard Agecoutay