EDMONTON — Driving home to Manitoba after a recent visit to his 200-head bison operation in northeastern Alberta, Gary Fielding noticed something unusual.
The producer from Amaranth saw at least eight semi-trailers fully loaded with hay heading towards Alberta, where livestock producers have been pummelled by drought and poor growing conditions.
Drought, hail damage and a cool growing season that has left crops too stunted to harvest have sent feed prices soaring in both Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Luckily, Fielding and his wife, Ruby, also run another bison operation near their home northwest of Winnipeg, where the weather has been better, so feed crops are more plentiful and less expensive.
The Fieldings normally pay between two and three cents a pound for livestock feed on their farm near Cold Lake. But that price has nearly doubled in recent weeks and could force them to transport their animals out of the province.
“We’ll probably be bringing our animals from Alberta (back to Manitoba). It’s less costly to move the animals than move the feed,” said Fielding.
Most livestock producers don’t have that option, though, and some cattle producers are looking at significantly downsizing their herds or selling off their entire operations.
In January, it was estimated there were approximately 1.8 million cattle in Alberta, said Scott McKinnon, an industry analyst based in Calgary.
Statistics Canada is expected to update those numbers Thursday, and McKinnon thinks the herd will be significantly reduced.
He’s heard that hail damage has wiped out forage crops in areas of southern Alberta, including for a large cattle-feeding operation east of Calgary.
Alberta producers experienced hard times during a drought in 2002. Some had enough cash to absorb higher feed costs as hay was trucked in from other provinces, said Rob Somerville, who ranches in east-central Alberta near Endiang.
But the fallout in the following years from mad cow disease, which saw many international markets close to Canadian beef, sucked most of the padding from many producers’ budgets.
“In 2009, there’s no money left in the industry. No one can afford to spend a lot of money on the cows. They’ll sell them and literally quit the business,” said Somerville.
The economic ripple will be felt throughout the economy and could cost some people their jobs, he suggested.
“It means packing-plant jobs, processing jobs, trucking jobs. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry that’s at risk.”
“It impacts the machinery dealers, the fuel dealers and our suppliers directly … and all those jobs associated with putting the beef on the retail shelf.”
Greg Marshall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said some areas that were experiencing drought earlier this year have received some rain, but it came too late for many crops.
Cattle producers in the province are also considering selling their animals because of poor feed prospects.
Fewer cattle in Saskatchewan could not only result in lower incomes for farmers, it could also hurt consumers, Marshall said.
“The direct result will be the average consumer won’t be able to buy locally produced beef as readily as they have in the past.”