Region 7 | Opinion

Prairie Drought and Climate Change—what can we do about it?

I think it is time for Alberta, her citizens and her farmers and perhaps the rest of the prairies to start thinking outside of the box and recognize we may have to start doing things differently. We can start with a new approach to emergency feed supplies for cattle producers.

For the past three years a feed crisis has risen in the prairies, affecting many farmers, their livelihoods and their ability to feed their livestock over the winter— and even in some cases during the summer— limiting their ability to maintain their herd sizes. 

This shortage of feed led those who have feed to demand high prices, which in turn puts many farmers who need the feed at a distinct disadvantage. Some have had to reduce herd sizes and others are exiting the industry.

According to Statistics Canada, the Canadian beef herd has shrunk by 25% since 2005, and the three-year drought we’re currently in added to that decline.

The drought has not only affected livestock farmer’s bottom line considerably. Information from stats Canada shows that for every dollar received by livestock farmers, only 5 cents is retained. The other 95 cents of that dollar is spent in their local community. This means a struggling and declining livestock sector affects not only the farmers but also the communities they live and operate within.

Statistics though, are an after-the-fact measurement, so we won’t see the effects of 2023 in numbers until into 2024. But by then, the horse has already left the barn so it will be a little late to close the door.

I know myself with the price of feed I will be forced to reduce my herd numbers by half. A neighbour to the south of me is reducing his herd by 100%— he is exiting and has no plans to re-enter the sector. Another farmer I was chatting with has reduced his herd a month ago to half, and he feels more will have to go.

The phrases I hear often to justify the feed price hikes is that it is supply and demand. Or it is market driven. In either case, it is making staying in the livestock industry harder, if not impossible. 

But maybe we can do something about it.

In the province of Alberta there are many thousands of kilometers of road ditches mowed every year, and the mowing is often paid for by the taxpayers of Alberta. Those thousands of kilometers of mowing add up to thousands of acres of forage that is chopped and left in the ditches. It could be used to provide feed for Alberta livestock farmers desperately short on feed. 

Some may argue it is low quality feed. I have no answer as I have never had the material tested, however it is feed that could be used to fill the bellies of livestock. Perhaps it would need to be supplemented with higher value feeds to give the animals the energy they need to make it through the winter and to carry their young to birth.

There is an argument that round bales left in ditches after baling is completed and before pick up presents a hazard to the public using the roadways possibly striking them when they hit the ditches. This is possible I suppose, but I would say no more of a hazard than the public striking the mowing equipment while mowing. Silaging the grasses may be a practical way to alleviate that concern.

Infrastructure and planning would be needed to make this idea a reality, along with a government willing to act upon the solution, particularly if silaging was chosen to harvest and use the ditch grasses. There would need to be the equipment to process the grasses into feed and there would also need to be storage areas to store the silage until such a time as the silage was picked up and delivered to the various farms that require the supplemental feed.

Taxpayers are already picking up the tab for the mowing of the ditches, and in some cases they are also paying for support program funds for farmers without feed. A per-tonne cost recovery fee could be put in place for those who use the feed, as farmers are looking for a hand up not a handout and a way to survive.

On our highways we have roadside turnouts for travelers to stop and rest or to check over their vehicles and dispose of garbage. We could develop similar turnouts on the highways to store the feed until it is picked up and fed.

The benefits to the taxpayer would be a better bang for their buck by turning grass waste from mowing into feed and helping their farmers maintain their herds in times of drought and feed shortages. It should also help to reduce the cost of food at the stores, as they use the same excuse for increasing prices: shortages or market-driven pricing.

As with any new system, potential problems could arise, but we are capable of solving them if we put our minds to it. 

Our environment seems to be changing.  We can put our head in the sands and ignore it, or we can admit something’s afoot and develop strategies to help lessen the effects.

The role of government is to govern for the common good. I propose that the province should look at processing the ditch forage into silage or baled the feed and making the feed available to farmers.

Forty years ago in Alberta we had the ”Can Do” attitude in the general population and in political leadership, today we have the “Can’t Do it “ attitude. We must change the way we think and behave and get our “Can Do It” attitude back— and join that with “We Must Do It.”

I believe thinking outside the box and looking at things like harvesting ditches for livestock feed is something that can be done and should be done. So let’s do it!

Neil Peacock

Neil Peacock is a 20-year member of the National Farmers Union, Region 7 (Alberta). A 3rd generation Alberta rancher, and small business owner, Neil and his wife Cathy raise pure bred Pinzgauer cattle in the Alberta Peace Region.