Prairie Drought Spoils Harvest, Prompts Cattle Sell-Off

By Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.
August 11, 2021 Updated: August 14, 2021

Weeks of sustained heat and little moisture has spoiled much of the harvest on the Prairies and forced ranchers to sell cattle early due to insufficient feed. But insurance and government aid is offering some relief, along with a long-term view of hope for the future.

Matt Struthers, a crop extension specialist with Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture, said it’s the driest year many farmers can remember although a good year for some, depending on where they’re located.

He told The Epoch Times that in Saskatchewan, “the southwest and west central regions—a large portion of them received the least amount of rain throughout the season, [but] parts of the southeast got … more rain than in other areas and they look really well.”

Many days of 30-degree heat this summer ripened crops early across much of the Prairies, while in areas without moisture there was little to harvest.

“A couple of fields might look really good in one area, and two miles away they have drought stress. So it’s kind of the luck of the draw this year of who got rain. And unfortunately, the majority of people didn’t get rain,” Struthers said.

He noted that the drought is severe in Manitoba but that Alberta is doing better in comparison. “They [Manitoba] were blowing that whistle quite a while ago. Even at the beginning of the season, they were saying that they’re in for a bad one. And then, parts of Alberta are definitely drier than they normally are. … They have larger irrigation districts than Saskatchewan does, so they have that advantage.”

‘The Worst That I Can Remember’

West of Mankota, Saskatchewan, hail compounded Francis Kress’s drought problems. Forty percent of his peas were destroyed, reducing his yields to 10 to 15 bushels per acre, he said in an interview.

“I’ve got 600 acres of canola that I don’t think can go one bushel an acre because it started flowering just as that heat hit [at the] end of June and beginning of July and just cooked it,” Kress said of the effects of the drought.

“This is probably the worst that I can remember. At least in the ’80s, it was bad, but I didn’t have a $500,000 operating loan to look at, worry about.”

Kress has 150 cattle. He baled his otherwise useless canola so his cattle can eat the stalks. He said he won’t sell much more of his herd than usual, unlike many who will be forced to sell this fall because of inadequate feed.

“We’re going to bale anything that comes out the back of the combine. I’ve got a little carryover [of feed] from last year, but most guys around here have zero to next-to-no carryover, so there’s lots of guys around that are hurting, and hurting bad. From what I hear, a 50 percent sell-off on cows,” he said.

“This year, instead of getting $1,200 for a dry cow in the fall, we might be getting 400 or 500 bucks.”

Kress said recent rains “really brightened things up around here,” but it was too late to help the crop.

“I remember it happening lots of times, but the young guys that are 30 and 35 or just starting out at 25, none of them have seen this. Those are the guys I feel sorry for because they have no idea what a bad year is,” he said.

“I’ve got enough insurance that things will be good this year, but if we don’t get a bunch of moisture this fall, things will look really, really, really bad next year.”

‘Hope for Better Things Next Year’

Farmers have a cushion for now. In March, some changes to the federal-provincial AgriStability program made more funds available and made funding easier to access, better helping farmers in need due to poor yields and other challenges. In early August, changes were made to allow farmers to bale failed crops and still make claims as well as to access more of their AgriStability interim benefit payment before completing their program year.

Then on Aug. 10, the Saskatchewan government announced that the federal-provincial AgriRecovery program would provide $297 million in funding to help drought-affected cattle producers, representing a payment of $200 per head for cattle.

The programs offer some consolation to Wayne Charteris, who farms near Kerrobert.

“We had about 1,000 acres of wheat and barley written off. We baled a bunch and I got cows grazing on some right now. … And we need feed anyway, so it works out all right that way,” Charteris said in an interview.

“I’ve got enough feed for now with these bales but I’m still going to be short, so I’m definitely going to be selling some of the cows.”

He easily sells about 10 percent of his cattle every year but “it’ll be 30 percent probably this year,” he said, adding that “[the price has] been dropping every day in the last month, but it’s a supply and demand thing.”

Last year, Charteris harvested 48 bushels per acre of seeded canola, but this year’s harvest is nowhere close, “maybe seven or eight bushels an acre.”

As for his lentils, “last year they went 40 [bushels per acre] and it went 15 this year,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve got crop insurance.”

Charteris said his promising crop was “cooked” by seven weeks of unrelenting heat, but it’s still better than his experience in 2002. “We never even got our seed back that year. … There wasn’t enough to make a bale anywhere.”

“Hope for better things next year is all we can do,” Charteris said.

Lee Harding
Lee Harding
Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.