All signs are pointing to a year of drought, pushing some farmers to take mitigative actions to lessen its impact.
"Because it’s so dry right now, you don’t want it to come down in torrents over a couple hours because that doesn’t have an ability to soak in — it’ll flow away," Pipestone-area cattle farmer Melissa Atchison said.
Consistent rain spread over the course of a couple days "would be a great start," she added.
Atchison has already sold her yearlings in order to lessen the strain on her belaboured land and water resources.
At least this year’s probable drought came with some warning, she said, noting the region is coming off a fairly dry summer and a winter with very little snowpack.
"We were hoping for a winter with snow accumulation and we didn’t get that," the Manitoba Beef Producers vice-president said, adding they’re now in a "pretty droughty, pretty concerning situation."
In addition to selling off yearlings, she said there are a number of measures farmers can take, including more targeted grazing and having cattle feed on less-desirable plants, but there’s only so much to be done without precipitation.
"All these management decisions have to be centred around the financial implications of those choices, whether it’s immediate or long term," she said.
"The one bright side is because we had such a mild winter, we didn’t use as much winter feed as we might have had it been very cold, because cows’ requirement is much higher when it’s cold out."
In the Birtle area, well north of Atchison’s farm, cattle farmer and Manitoba Beef Producers president Tyler Fulton said they’re experiencing similar moisture conditions.
"We’re in a tight spot," he said, reporting dry sloughs throughout the area.
They could typically rely on snowmelt refilling sloughs in the spring, but the limited snowpack wasn’t enough to make much of a dent.
"We’re early in the growing season, so I’m optimistic we’ll get some better pasture conditions … but the reality is, for pasture water systems, we’d have to get exceptional rainfall in order to fill the dugouts we have and use to water the livestock, and we’re not going to see that," he said.
Like Atchison, Fulton sold yearlings earlier than he’d planned. He has also secured extra rental land and restructured his farming operations in other ways to brace for a probable drought.
"I’ve not seen it this dry before," he said, adding he has been back on the farm for 15 years. "I can think back to when I was a kid in the ’80s, and just in referencing how dry it was then and how similar water bodies have been, I’ve never seen it where there’s so little surface water as there is now, and we’re only in April."
If conditions continue as expected, he forecasts financial hardship in farmers’ future, with a market oversaturated with cattle that farmers are divesting of early due to their inability to keep them healthy and alive.
"If nothing changes within a month, then there’s going to be some really hard decisions to make as to how hard you cull the numbers," he said.
"If there’s not a significant amount of rainfall between now and the middle of June, then we’re looking at some very long-lasting impacts to the cow herd in Manitoba."
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB