Doug Sawyer has seen plenty of ups and downs during his approximately 25 years in the cow-calf business. But the current despair in the industry is unlike anything the Pine Lake-area farmer has experienced.
“I’ve never seen the morale as low as it has been.”
The latest crisis affecting producers is a severe shortage of hay and grass that followed the cold, dry spring.
Sawyer, a director with Alberta Beef Producers and the organization’s finance chair, said he’s heard about hay in Southern Alberta selling for $160 to $180 a ton — or about $100 a bale.
“That’s about double what we should be dealing with.”
Harry Brook, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development’s Ag-Info Centre in Stettler, confirmed that hay yields are down and prices up — with drastic consequences.
“A lot of guys are either dispersing their herds or doing some very severe cuts to the cow numbers, because they just don’t have the feed,” he said.
In many cases, added Sawyer, producers are downsizing their breeding stock. And that’s a bad trend in a province known for the quality of its beef.
“In Alberta, we have some of the best genetics in our commercial herd as well as our purebred herd that you’ll find anywhere in the world,” he pointed out. “We’re removing those genetics.”
The beef industry is suffering from other problems, he added, such as the high Canadian dollar.
“There are just so many factors that seem to be working against us right now, in the cow-calf industry in particular.”
Sawyer has been disappointed with the help his industry has received.
For instance, the current feed shortage might have been reduced had drought-damaged crops been promptly written off this spring. That would have allowed them to be harvested as greenfeed and alternatives seeded in their place.
Unfortunately, farmers with insurance had to leave their crops standing until June 20 and then wait for an adjustor.
One east-Central Alberta farmer that Sawyer knows sat waiting with his air drill filled with oats.
“He’s now cleaning it out and putting it away. He never did get it done and it’s way too late now.
“We missed a huge opportunity to reseed literally thousands of acres that could have gone into greenfeed or a feed source that would have really benefited our industry huge.”
The feed value of crops that had to wait to be written off also diminished with the passage of time, said Sawyer.
Farmers with insured hay were also prevented from turning livestock into their parched fields until June 20, he said. Some chose not to wait.
“They had no option but to go ahead and forgive their hay coverage because they had to put cows on feed.”
Sawyer said he is also frustrated by insurance restrictions that prevent producers from grazing haylands more than two consecutive years.
“I fail to understand that thinking, because whether you mechanically harvest it with a hay bind and tractor or whether you harvest it with cattle, as long as it’s done properly. . . . .
“That’s just punishing producers that have no option but to turn cattle in on it.”
The federal-provincial AgriStability program has also failed to help many cow-calf producers, said Sawyer. That’s because they’re working with shrinking margins and consequently eligible for less coverage under the program.
“We’ve been a low-margin area for the last few years, since BSE. We’ve just got no room left.”
The Advocate was unable to obtain comment from Agriculture Financial Services Corporation, which administers crop insurance and AgriStability programs.