Extreme drought leaves some Interlake cattle producers no choice but to sell off their herds

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Cattle producers in the Interlake are selling off herds in rare summer auctions as drought conditions batter the region.

Kirk Kiesman, a producer near Ashern, Man., and manager of the Ashern Auction Mart, said 1,470 head of cattle were sold at a sale Wednesday because feed for the animals is scarce. Normally sales don’t start until August.

“This year we’re in July, guys are liquidating yearlings to try and save grass for their cow herd. Guys are selling cow herds altogether,” Kiesman said. “There’s guys selling bred cows that should be calving in a month, they’re selling them because they don’t have any feed. It’s not a good situation in the Interlake.”

“There’s lots of guys that have made hard decisions to sell their cows while they’re still in good shape to try and keep some economic flow in their farm.”

Kiesman raises about 220 head of cattle on a farm with his wife.

He said he’s been forced to buy feed because pasture land his cattle would normally graze on until October has been decimated by dry conditions and heat. Grasshoppers have also added to the problem.

Hay crops are also poor.

“It’s bad out here. We started feeding cows about 10, 11 days ago on pasture now,” he said. “So we’re supplementing fairly heavily.”

“We’re doing 15 pounds per pair of pellets right now just because the grass is gone.”

Supplementing feed is much more costly and Kiesman said they may have to sell earlier, before their cows can put on more weight, which means they won’t get as much for them when they go to market.

“In our area there’s lots of farmers that are going to make 10 per cent of their hay crop this year and there’s a 90 per cent shortfall,” Kiesman. “And we’re talking at that point — it’s really tough to buy enough feed to make that economically feasible.”

Selling off part of his herd is exactly what Fisher Branch area farmer Douglas Kernot decided to do.

He put his cows up for sale on Kijiji and sold them Thursday morning to another farmer in the province.

“I sold 19 cows and calves,” Kernot said. “I had 27 altogether but the farmer who purchased them he wanted 19. He actually wanted 20 but we settled on 19.”

“The hay was very terrible this year. That’s all I can say.”

Kernot said he has never seen it so dry.

“We were dry in ‘03. That’s a memory you don’t forget. And I always said when it’s wet, it’s wet — we can handle wet. We’re already prepared in the whole area for wet. It’s when it’s dry, there’s no feed for anything.”

Kernot wants to see governments work with grain farmers to make poor quality crops available to livestock producers for feed.

Ralph Eichler, Manitoba’s agriculture minister, said Wednesday the province has requested an AgriRecovery assessment from the federal government.

“It is imperative that the federal government works together with the province for immediate relief during this year’s drought,” Eichler said in an emailed statement.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal agriculture minister, toured the Interlake Thursday. The minister visited a grain farm north of Winnipeg and will share more details on supports for drought-stricken farmers during a media conference in Winnipeg.

The minister has said Ottawa is working with the Prairie provinces on disaster relief programs.