The snow piling up in Westman is leaving producers feeling cautiously optimistic for the 2022 growing season after a summer of drought and adversity in 2021.
Manitoba Beef Producers president Tyler Fulton said he is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst leading up to spring. Fulton runs an operation based in Birtle with about 600 head of cattle.
The summer of 2021 was a challenging time for ranchers.
"Honestly, it felt like we were constantly just trying to put out fires just dealing with the crisis of it all," Fulton said.
Producers were forced to look for contingencies on several different fronts, especially when it came to keeping animals fed and watered.
Fulton uses dugouts to water his cattle. Most of the sites are fenced off and employ a solar watering system to preserve the quality and quantity of the water. Even with these mitigation steps, he still lost dugouts over the summer due to the drought.
By the middle of June, Fulton said, they had to pull cows from pastures because of the lack of water for the first time ever.
The ranch chose to sell some animals they intended to keep over the summer, but they avoided having to sell animals from their core herd.
Producers from across the province were in a similar situation, he said, and many were forced to sell cattle to survive the summer.
"There were I think three auction marts that ran throughout the whole summer. They didn’t miss a week. They were operating in July and August when typically, they aren’t open ... All of those animals would not have otherwise been sold," Fulton said. "We know that guys are already feeling the pinch because they have been forced to buy feed and some of them have been forced to sell their cows. It has both short-term and long-term implications."
In the short term, producers have been forced to put up capital for feed because the drought prevented them from letting cattle graze. They are now short of cash, Fulton said, because 2021 represented one of the worst production years from a profitability standpoint — prices of cattle were slightly down and did not represent the cash ranchers had to pay for feed during the drought.
Longer-term impacts of the 2021 summer involve the sustainability of individual farms that had to sell cattle. Animals are the economic generator of a farm. Selling these animals was a hit to operations and families, Fulton said, because it was the loss of a core economic driver and revenue generator.
Mitigation and sustainability practices are emerging in response to the extreme weather producers have been experiencing, especially among younger producers who are interested in adopting water and soil conservation practices.
These practices can include rotational grazing and more intensive management of grazing lands.
"The benefit is there. But, at the end of the day when you’ve got precipitation levels that were less than half of what an average year would be, everybody is struggling," Fulton said. "It is going to be one of those practices that will be the consistent thing that allows producers to stay in the business and weather the climatic disasters that arise."
Provincial and federal programs, including the AgriStability, MASC Forage Insurance Program, On-Farm Climate Action Fund and the Ag Action Better Management 503, can also help producers struggling to manage adverse weather conditions.
"In order for a producer to get a benefit from the program, they need to experience a disaster, and that’s what last year was," Fulton said.
Keystone Agriculture Producers president Bill Campbell said it was a challenging year in 2021 with regard to the drought conditions producers faced across the province.
"Virtually everyone can agree that our sub-soil moisture moving forward in 2022 is adequate, and so we’re going to require some above-average snowfall and some very timely rains in the spring and throughout the growing season to alleviate those drought concerns," Campbell said.
Campbell’s farm is based in Minto. He faced a dry summer, but was able to get some timely rains and harvest an average crop. He added some of his forage production was impacted significantly and was in a claim situation.
Farmers learned important lessons in 2021 and have been grateful for the support provided by all levels of government.
The greatest way to alleviate the 2022 drought is to have those timely rains, which will ease everybody’s minds.
Campbell said his farm has utilized zero-till features. He did not work any of the lands last fall and left stubble standing to collect as much snow as possible.
He also used GPS technology to ensure they are not overlapping and wasting nutrients fuel.
"There’s been a significant adaptation to some of the environmental concerns that have been happening," Campbell said.
The drought is not a new situation for many farmers, Campbell said, as they faced similar situations in 1988, 1961 and the 1930s.
The key difference now is producers are better equipped to handle extreme weather like droughts.
"If this had been 1988 with the tools I had at that time, we would have been looking at a significant disaster. I honestly believe we’ve been able to evolve and adapt and do the best that we can," Campbell said.
Agriculture is an innovative industry because adapting is key to a farm’s survival — farmers do best they can and experiment to see what leads to the most positive returns.
"If you don’t try, then you’re not moving forward," Campbell said. "We’ve learned a lot over the years, and it’s the greatest group of innovators I think on the landscape as far as dealing with the conditions that we have."
When farmers have a bad season, it ripples out, affecting multiple industries and consumers.
"Society has maybe taken for granted the assumption that the grocery store will have food and I will be able to purchase what I want when I want. When we have these particular disruptions from supply chains or processors or transportation or production, it certainly will impact society and consumers," Campbell said.
» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp