“Another drought year would be more than our pocketbook could stand,” says Alberta rancher

(Clint Alley/www.flickr.com/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Drought by definition, we can likely agree on. But take it on a case by case scenario, and you quickly realize it can mean a million different things. Everyone has a different perspective of dry, and that perception can change depending what year of drought it is.

On a grain and oilseed farm, there is a difference between what happens in the long-run. Although multiple years of low precipitation can be devastating for a crop producer, the cattle herd doesn’t get replaced in a year.

Many ranchers in the extreme drought zone are facing trials and tribulations when it comes to what to do next year. Rob Somerville of Stettler, Alta., is one of those ranchers.

There’s two sides to the equation Somerville is currently facing, as he explained on a recent episode of RealAg Radio. Not only is there no grass out in pasture, but you have to look at the cost of feeding these cows over the winter. On top of that, the looming issue of “will it even rain next year,” has many stuck between a rock and a hard place, he says.

“For us, we have the cow/calf operation. We will also background our calves. And then we finish those calves right down to fats. So in effect there is different operations. One of the things we have to consider is do we just sell our weaned calves instead of backgrounding them?” saying that would save on feed.

But, if he could, he’d rather hang on to those fat calves. “We put quite a bit of money into them. The target date is to sell them in February, we’d like to keep them through to fat but everything is for sale, and we will have to do what we have to do,” he says.

Hanging onto the cattle would be the ideal situation for many of these ranchers, as cattle is a long-term investment. It takes years to build up a herd to a place where they will provide the economic return you’d like. Going back to square one would be detrimental. However, if it this drought continues into 2022, selling them now may be the only option on the table.

“You buy hay, or you cull them. In some ways you are kind of almost looking ahead until next spring, wondering if there is going to be grass. Obviously if it stays dry, there’s no point in spending a lot of money to buy feed just to be forced — literally forced — to sell them next spring,” Somerville says.

We’ve got to figure out how much we really like these cows.”

There is of course the assistance of AgriRecovery dollars, and Somerville says there is no question about whether or not that money has helped. However, it is not going to help everyone.

“There will still be people that need to sell down cows. And from an industry standpoint, the western Canadian cattle industry could stand to see a somewhat smaller cow herd. If there was a dramatic drop in the number of cows, that would have impact on an industry-wide basis. So I think that’s kind of what the AgriRecovery money was trying to do, was maintain a viable cattle industry in western Canada. They’ve made progress, but I still think there will be a sell down with cows,” he says.

Check out the full conversation on the October 21st episode of RealAg Radio, here.