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Tough year for cattle producers, says industry expert

After a tough year like 2021, many producers are leaving the profession altogether, said Melanie Wowk, chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

Alberta cattle producers are happy to have another round of financial support from the provincial and federal governments after a difficult year of drought.

January saw the rollout of a second phase of the 2021 Canada-Alberta Livestock Feed Assistance AgriRecovery initiative. Alberta Beef Producers chair Melanie Wowk said the drought last year was very tough on producers and they are thankful to receive payments from the program.

“We're extremely thankful to the government for recognizing that we needed it. But our second payment, we're just applying for it now, so I'm assuming [we] won't see [it] until March or April,” Wowk said.

“So almost a year from the time we started seeing the drought issues.”

The summer of 2021 was tough on farmers and producers, with no moisture and high temperatures scorching crops across the province. As a result, producers had a limited supply of feed for their animals, causing some to reduce the numbers in their herds while others had to pay sky-high prices for feed.

Wowk, who runs a commercial cow-calf herd around 160 kilometres east of Edmonton, said she had around 300 cows in the herd but downsized to 200 because of the drought. She has 100 head of horses, which she had to consider when putting together a plan for feeding over the winter.

“It was extremely stressful,” Wowk said of the year.

The chair got a call early in July from a neighbour, who is a grain farmer, alerting her that the grain was starting to dry up quickly.

Feed pastures began to dry and without rain they completely shrivelled up. 

While the Canadian and provincial government AgriRecovery program kicked in in the summer, Wowk said the American drought program kicked in much earlier, in May. Due to Americans getting their cash earlier, many were coming up to Canada to buy feed, offering 10 per cent above market price because they were so concerned about feeding their animals.

“And so that drove up our prices and our availability of feed drops significantly,” Wowk said.

Canadians didn’t get their first payments from the AgriRecovery program until September and October, so Wowk said producers were behind.

The second payments for the program will roll out in March or April, Wowk said, which is nearly a year since the drought began. The gap in payments is tough on producers who may have many payments to make.

“Feed prices are just incredibly high and so it's a difficult decision to try and make, and then you're not guaranteed that you're going to get paid for everything you submit right now,” Wowk said.

But for many producers, there is a good risk-insurance program, and after a tough year like 2021, many producers are leaving the profession altogether. Wowk said for years producers have been slowly leaving the industry. Since 2010, cattle numbers have been reducing across the country.

There is speculation that cattle prices will jump in 2022-23 because of the herd reductions over the past year, but many producers may not be able to wait that long.

Many cattle producers are 55 to 60 years old and Wowk said, with stagnant cattle prices, tough conditions, and high input prices, many will choose to retire rather than continue.

“We need more young producers and it's really hard to lure them into this into this way of life because we never know how much money we are going to make. We are price takers. We totally depend on the market and debt loads are quite high.”

If conditions don’t improve, Wowk said she fears the industry might lose even more producers.

“If we don't get moisture this spring it's going to weed out even more people.”

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Media based in St. Albert, Alta.
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