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As drought persists on the Prairies, some farmers are selling off their herds

Bart Guyon has a close relationship with his livestock, which makes parting with them that much more difficult.

But as a multi-year drought persists on the Prairies, ranchers like Guyon are making the tough choice to reduce or sell off their herds.

“Especially if you’ve bottle-fed any animals, you get pretty attached to your livestock, and it’s pretty hard,” he said.

The Brazeau County, Alta., man raises bison, elk and cattle on his nearly 6,500-hectare ranch, but over the last couple of years, he has reduced his bison herd by 30 to approximately 100, his cattle by roughly 50 to 25 and his elk herd by 60 to approximately 25.

A group of bison stand on snow-covered lands.
Rancher Bart Guyon has approximately 100 bison left after recently selling off 30. (Peter Evans/CBC)

“We’re reducing them based on the fact that we’re having a harder time producing [feed] off this farm,” Guyon said, adding water sources like a nearby creek have also been drying up.

“I’m talking, like, dust.”

And Guyon is not alone.

Chance Martin, owner and auctioneer at Thorsby Stockyards, said the last year and a half has been busy as farmers reduce their herds and don’t replace them.

A man in the stands holds a microphone as cows are herded into a pen.
Thorsby Stockyards holds a cattle auction every Monday year-round. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

“If they didn’t get more grass or buy more land, everybody as a whole has pared back their herd, for sure. A percentage, some have got right out of it.”

He said some farmers may have contemplated selling, anyway, because of other reasons like lack of feed, but the drought was the catalyst that pushed them over the edge.

Martin worries about the bigger issues that reducing herds could bring.

“As we go through these drought cycles and people start to bring down their herd, it hurts the security of food in Canada and across the world.

“It’s very concerning. I mean, weather basically dictates the whole [agriculture] industry, it truly does.”

Lingering drought

Drought has gripped some parts of the Prairies over the last few years, said John Pomeroy, a Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan.

Pomeroy said the drought became “really severe” last year when the seasonal snowpack melted roughly one month early in the Prairies, the mountains and across the North, contributing to hot and dry conditions in the summer.

A man wearing glasses and a blue jacket inspects a box against a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
Researcher John Pomeroy inspects a weather station by the Troll Falls Trailhead near Canmore, Alta. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

“[That] put us into extraordinary drought conditions in some places — the sort of drought you see once in a lifetime,” he said.

Soil moisture levels are hundreds of millimetres below where they should be, while snowpacks are between 150 and 200 millimetres below normal, he said.

Though parts of the Prairies have seen recent heavy snowfall, it will not be enough.

“That helps, but it still doesn’t bring us up to normal conditions,” he said.

“We would need above normal snowpacks to break the drought and provide reasonable water supply for irrigation and cities downstream.”

Concern is growing over Alberta’s drought conditions, especially as the province reels from last year’s historic wildfire season, which burned about 2.2 million hectares.

The province is preparing its wildfire resources, with an additional 100 firefighters, and a $2-billion contingency fund for disasters and emergencies proposed in its latest budget.

The hope for spring

A man wearing glasses and a blue shirt sits in front of a computer with a map on the screen.
Trevor Hadwen is an agro-climate specialist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (Will Draper/CBC)

Trevor Hadwen, a agro-climate specialist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said droughts build up slowly over time and their impacts linger.

“We have lost approximately one year’s worth of snow through the three years of drought,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re going to recover this spring.”

Instead, he said he hopes for soil moisture build-up, allowing for crops to produce, as well as timely rains throughout the season.

He said the changing climate is resulting in more droughts and extreme weather.

A man and woman stand beside a large water tank on a snow-covered ranch.
Bart Guyon recently installed a water tank on his ranch to help collect water. (Peter Evans/CBC)

As for Guyon, the rancher, he is doing what he can to mitigate the situation.

He has installed water tanks, run hoses to the nearby stream and set up water troughs, all in efforts to collect as much water as possible.

“Most farmers are pretty resilient. They usually figure out a way to get over the hurdles and find a way to make it work,” Guyson said.

He is hopeful that the measures that he has taken will be enough, but admits things are in the hands of Mother Nature.

“You don’t have water, you don’t have life. And water is just absolutely crucial for everything — whether it’s plants, animals or people.”

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