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Drought causes havoc for Burns Lake ranchers

As you get older, you just don’t feel like going through these catastrophes and disasters anymore; Solecki
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The current dry season and lack of rainfall has impacted the production of hay, which means no feed for cattle. (File photo/Lakes District News)

This summer Burns Lake and the entire province has been experiencing severe drought.

The dry season has impacted the cattle industry due to lack of hay throughout British Columbia.

Mark Parker, Chairperson of Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako said, “There is no pasture, there is no hay. It’s been pretty devastating. The only way to do it is trying to source expensive hay because there is such a shortage. The price of hay is double to triple than what it normally is. The costs are extremely high. That is really affecting what people can do. The current feed yield this year, was anywhere from 10 to 40 per cent of normal. So, a lot of people were only getting where they would get 100 bales, or we’re getting 10 to 12 bales off of off the field. You can imagine how tough that is to make it work.”

Samantha Seary, Media Relations Office of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food said, “The impact of wildfires, drought conditions, low stream flow, and local water restrictions in British Columbia has impacted forage yield, resulting in 70 per cent losses in the Peace and Bulkley-Nechako, regions. Hay prices in these regions have increased three times higher than last year resulting in producers having to reduce herd sizes. It is also expensive to have hay delivered to areas in the north.”

Bill Miller, a local farmer has a small operation that keeps calves over the winter season.

He said he is lucky enough to have a third of his winter forage needs left over from the previous year.

Miller said, “We bought hay early and from long term buyers before the hay shortage really hit the market, so we will not have to sell animals.”

His hay production this year produced about 20 per cent compared with last year. “We would normally sell approximately 100 tons of hay. This has left the people we normally sell to short, so they will be selling animals [he figured],” he said.

According to Miller, the overall the production of hay on the Highway 16 corridor from Vanderhoof through to Hazelton is down in the neighbourhood of 75 per cent.

Hay prices have risen to $300 per ton range. Pasture has was also been impacted seriously because of lack of rain.

Cattle prices are still pretty reasonable but Miller expects that they will drop going into the Fall season as the market will be saturated with cattle.

Miller said, “I have heard some producers talking about a 50 per cent reduction in herds and some getting out all together.”

Farmers and ranchers are a resilient group. but the age demographic and other factors are beating them down this time.

Miller is worried that, The agriculture community relates to the ability of farmers and ranchers to withstand all kinds of disasters from BSE epidemics [mad cow disease] to drastic market fluctuations to weather events. This year has had all at once including high fuel prices, fires, drought and high interest rates. given the age of some of our food producers. I am not sure some will come back.”

“Food production should be our number one priority and especially local supplies. The forestry downturn is a bad enough impact that we cannot afford our ag-industry to go down as well. There are some programs out there to help such as the agri-sustainability program,” Miller said.

Mike Pritchford, Vanderhoof B.C. Livestock Yard manager and president of the Nechako Valley Regional Cattlemens Association said, “The issue right now is still no hay. There’s no hay to be found. So, while they’re eating, right now, there’s this big group of cattle, and I’m talking thousands of head that probably are gonna go to sales. At some point in the near future, because they can’t, there will be no hay to feed these cows.”

He said, “It’s just not enough to feed the existing herds that they have. So, everybody’s gonna be downsizing to fit what they’ve got for winter feed because you can’t keep them. Currently, with no feed, nobody’s looking at buying cattle here, they’re looking at selling them. So, there’ll be really no demand in this part of B.C., and I don’t think the southern part of B.C. has got much demand for breeding stock either. So, they’re gonna have to go find a new home. It could be in Alberta, maybe Saskatchewan, and potentially Manitoba. I’ve heard that there is some demand for the breeding stock, but for us to ship it there to Manitoba is a lot of money on freight. So, the cost will be, you know, the producers getting will be kind of taking that into factor as well. Whereas if they go into meat wise, that’s great. Those cattle move through really quickly. But like any other commodity, if you put a whole bunch of it on the market, the price drops.”

Jon Solecki, B.C. Cattlemen Association Director said, “For both beef and dairy there is a big shortage of forage. Most people here do not have irrigation.”

He said, “There is about 20 to 30 per cent forage production in Lakes District on average. This situation effects on anybody who owns cattle that needs feed through the winter, and now, there is no feed anywhere.”

Solecki said, “In the States, I think it’s the closest area in Washington State, there’s some hay going on there. But, by the time you can get it up to here, it’s probably in the neighborhood for $400 per ton and that’s just doesn’t make any kind of economic sense.”

“Three tons of hay [give or take] is required to put a cow through the winter,” he said. “That’s $1200 just for hay if you had to buy that, just doesn’t make sense. So what’s gonna make economic sense?”

Every year, ranchers turn over 20 per cent of their herd.

Solecki said, “We bring in young animals to replace the old cows that are not bred. Cows that have poor feed, or poor attitudes are the kinds of cattle that get shipped every year.”

More people selling their herd will disrupt the cattle market coming this Fall and it is expected for prices to slump.

Solecki said, “This is what’s going to happen, is that people are going to sell cattle this Fall. Another thing about cattle ranching business and agriculture in general in this country is that most farmers are pretty old. Average age of ranchers is something like 65, or something along those lines. As you get older, you just don’t feel like going through these catastrophes and disasters anymore.”

Solecki said the dairy industry will survive in this crisis because of their supply management. “The dairy farmers have some assurance that they can recoup their losses over time, whereas cattle ranchers really don’t.”

Solecki also said, “I don’t have an ultimate solution.”

The Minister of Agriculture and Agrifood said, “My heart goes out to our farm families in Western Canada affected by drought and wildfires. As a farmer for half of my life, I know how difficult it is to be dependent on the weather for production. I will continue to work with the province and the industry to monitor the situation and deploy the necessary programs to support producers, both short- and long-term.”

Pritchford said, “Last year, we went into the winter with a drought. We had some snow, but not enough. Most of the snow that came was really cold when it came. It was pretty light and fluffy with not a lot of water contact. Then we had a dry spring. From my understanding talking to the soil scientists, is there was a slight uptick in the moisture content of the soil right when the runoff was coming. But because we had that really hot weather right in May, and all that grass came out and all the leaves took off. So, once all this forage flushed; new growing leaves suck all the water that was excess out of that soil. And we were right back in the same oyster conditions as we were in October of last year.”

The province has reached out to the Federal Government to partner on an agri-recovery program that could substantially help producers who are affected so far by the drought and the fires.

The B.C. Cattlemen Association has also partnered with the province to deliver a feed subsidy program.

“Help is available for B.C. farmers and ranchers impacted by wildfire and drought through AgriStability,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal Minister of Agriculture and Food. “Those who are not yet participating in the program can still do so to receive financial assistance. The Government of Canada will continue to work closely with the Province to ensure farmers have the support they need to get back to what they do best – producing high-quality food for Canadians.”

The ministry continues to offer regional and specialized assistance to any producers in need and those looking for support can call the AgriService BC line at 1-888-221-7141.