Saskatchewan

A few drops of rain offer a bit of relief to parched Prairie farms

​Some southern Saskatchewan farmers are feeling a little less on edge after just enough rain helped ease a dire situation.​

Sask. crop report shows hay yields are below average, in short supply

Extremely dry conditions that have persisted during the last few years have affected southern Saskatchewan farmers. (CBC News)

The cracks were so deep in the arid ground on Bill Aulie's farm earlier this year, that he could reach into them up to his elbow. 

There has been little rain during the last three years on his farm near Rouleau, Sask.

Aulie is a commercial grain farmer who also raises and trains Clydesdales.

During the spring, he began to become concerned about winter feed supply. The concerns persisted as June and early July remained dry. 

"Our hay crop was absolutely invisible. There was nothing there," Aulie said. 

Last week's provincial crop report said that "hay yields have been well below normal for many producers and will be in short supply this year in several areas."

It also said that producers have indicated that there will not be a second cut of hay this year.

In July, Aulie's luck turned and the rain finally fell. The hay cut happened one month late, but at least it happened. 

"You wouldn't believe the weight that comes off your shoulders," he said. "It's like having the bank come to take your house and then taking a look again and saying, 'No, you keep it.'"

Bill Aulie, a farmer in the Rouleau, Sask. area, said recent rains have turned a dire situation positive — but he notes that's not the reality for farmers in other areas. (CBC News)

Aulie's not the only one whose situation looks less grim than it did at the beginning of the month. 

​"If it wasn't for that rain, it would be just terribly dismal," said Chad Ross. "We thought it was maybe too late for the crop but it did spruce it up a little bit."

It's not for the weak of heart, this business.- Estevan-area farmer Chad Ross

The fourth-generation farmer's family has ranched south of Estevan for more than 115 years. He's been at the helm of the feedlot and cow-calf operation for about 25 years. 

Recent rains have brought his below-average hay crop to somewhere near average. 

Ross said this is the third year he's faced a drought, so this is the third year he's faced cattle feed challenges. 

"It's not for the weak of heart, this business."

For the last two years, Ross said his farm has lost money as it has only yielded about half its crop tonnage. It's difficult because the farm already dances a fine margin in the cattle industry, he said.

Farmers facing stressful 'survival mode'

Ross and Aulie both noted the stress facing other farmers, those who weren't lucky enough to receive just enough rain. 

The emotional turmoil of waiting on weather can be hard to explain to those who don't farm, Aulie said. 

"It would be like taking your job and saying, 'Well, you've worked for 12 months, don't know if you're gonna get a paycheque," he said. "What used to be a nice size operation, you may have to deplete it right down to survival mode." 

Aulie said some people who have worked a lifetime to build up their herds are now having to haul half the herd to auction. 

"That's got to be very stressful."

However, he said, many farmers simply grin, bear and hide the stress. 

"We don't hardly ever see that. You never see it until it's too late."

Ross echoed Aulie, noting southern producers are up against hard decisions, which bring up anxiety, stress and depression. 

Some farmers have dipped into the red, while others are relying on crop insurance or government tax deferrals, he said. 

"Producers can sell off their herd, and then your taxes are deferred on that sale to where if you want to buy back in the coming years, you can do that without tax problems." 

Ross said many farmers' reserves are entirely empty, leaving them no choice but to sell their cattle or look for feed — potentially expensive feed — elsewhere.

Online feed sales connecting locals

Ross hasn't had to sell off cattle, but he has had to source feed elsewhere and transporting feed long distances is a costly. 

"It's a bulky product, and it gets expensive to truck that very far, and so that's where it's a real challenge." 

Ross is hopeful that the The Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association Facebook group for hay sales can help offset the cost of transportation, by connecting farmers with local sellers. 

He remembers his dad trucking hay in from Hudson Bay during the 1980s drought, and hopes others can avoid that.

There is another hay and feed for sale group for the three Prairie provinces, and people are also turning to websites like Kijiji. 

Ross said that even with the rain, farmers must remain diligent. 

"My dad and grandpa said anyone can survive one year of drought. It's the years after that that get you, so a person has to be prepared for that."

The province has listed resources for farmers struggling through dry conditions on its website

About the Author

Kendall Latimer

Journalist

Kendall Latimer began her journalism career in print as a newspaper reporter in Saskatoon and then as a feature writer in Bangkok. She joined CBC Saskatchewan in 2016. Latimer shares stories on web, radio and television. Contact her: kendall.latimer@cbc.ca

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