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Relief could be coming for drought-stricken farmers, ranchers


‘Snow is not the curse this winter in the West, it brings smiles to farmers’ faces to have that snow, any moisture you can get’

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There is hope on the Pacific horizon for Alberta producers.

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After one of the worst droughts of the past 75 years, David Phillips, Environment Canada senior climatologist, said in a press conference on Thursday that La Niña could bring colder temperatures and an extra helping of snow this winter.

It’s not a guarantee, but for producers who endured one of the most difficult growing seasons of their lives, it is good news that has been in short supply.

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“Snow is not the curse this winter in the West, it brings smiles to farmers’ faces to have that snow, any moisture you can get,” said Phillips.

The drought featured prominently on Environment Canada’s top 10 weather stories of the year, coming in at No. 3, behind the heat dome and the November flooding in B.C. Phillips said it was an early contender for the top spot until the recent flooding and he had a look at some of the numbers from the heat dome which broke hundreds of temperature records and killed about 600 people in B.C. and another 200 in Alberta.

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While it was dry from coast to coast, he said 99 per cent of the three Prairie provinces had drought conditions a month before harvest.

And it wasn’t just a little bit of drought — it was generational-level drought, challenging some of the worst conditions in Alberta history, for some bringing in comparisons to the Dirty ’30s.

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“Hollywood couldn’t have produced more horror for farmers and ranchers this year, all of the precipitation came at the end of August and they had their machinery out in the field to harvest the meager crop they had,” said Phillips. “That’s a worst-case scenario, sometimes they were mired in muck that had it been there two months before it would have been a billion-dollar rain instead of the desperation that they had.”

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For provinces like Manitoba, this was two years in the making, and Phillips said the concern is over multiple consecutive years of a lack of precipitation. He pointed to regions like California that have been devastated by a decade of these types of conditions.

The climate specialist said producers have become much better at maximizing the moisture they do get, making them more resilient, but they can only weather so much.

Lynn Jacobson, the president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said there was a range of growing conditions across the province. Some producers had no crop, others had a partial crop and then there were pockets of farmers who did OK, but the bad outweighed the good.

Issues were compounded for some producers who were locked into yield and were now having to buy out the majority of their deal with little grain to sell.

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Livestock producers are still struggling to figure out how to make it through to the spring, with many facing difficult choices about selling off breeding stock because they will not have the feed to get them through the winter.

Jacobson said he heard reports of between 20 and 35 per cent of the provincial cow-calf herd will be culled for this reason.

That’s not just a short-term impact, but one that will hit producers for years to come, if they decide to continue on and not retire.

“It’s going to be five years to build their herds back up, if they really want to and to get the kind of animals that they want,” said Jacobson, 69, whose family has farmed near Enchant, Alta., since homesteading in 1905. “It takes a while to recover from this, and for some it was probably the last straw.”

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Beef cattle at the Kasko Cattle feedlot in Coaldale, Alberta, on May 6, 2020.
Beef cattle at the Kasko Cattle feedlot in Coaldale, Alberta, on May 6, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Todd Korol

The federal and provincial governments both stepped up with improvements in sector programs to help producers navigate the drought. In August, the two levels of government announced $500 million in funding from Ottawa to the AgriRecovery disaster assistance program with the provinces combining for $322 million in funding for the 60-40 initiative — $136 million of which came from the Alberta government.

Beef producers in Alberta were able to apply for up to $200 per head through the program.

Other changes were made through insurance programs that allowed farmers to open up lost crops to feed their herds without taking a penalty. For the first time, for many, this meant their cattle fed on canola or other alternative grains.

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Hay West 2021 was also activated, as producers in Eastern Canada made their excess hay and feed available to Western ranchers and farmers. This built off a program created in the wake of the 2002 drought and then reciprocated in 2012 with Hay East. On Tuesday, the federal government injected another $4 million into the program to help cover transportation costs.

Feed is not the sole issue at hand going forward.

The lack of rain through the 2021 growing season means a lowered water table for next year and a potential for caps on irrigation from reservoirs.

The idea of more snow this winter and rain in the spring is music to Jacobson’s ears.

“I think there’s a lot of trepidation among producers, but it’s too soon to panic at this point in time,” he said about forecasts for 2022. “There’s still lots of time for improvements in weather conditions, which will make people feel a lot better.”

jaldrich@postmedia.com

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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