Manitoba farmers struggling under the impacts of extreme weather could get some much-needed relief through a number of programs announced by the federal and provincial governments on Thursday.
The combination of extreme heat, low precipitation and insect infestation across southern and central Manitoba have stunted crops and forced cattle producers to sell off part or all of their herds.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau toured regions affected by the drought on Thursday morning.
“I can’t begin to imagine the stress that producers are going through watching your pastures and crops dry up, wondering how you’re going to get your animals through the winter,” she said at a news conference later in the day.
As part of the relief programs announced Thursday, insured livestock feed producers can get an extra $44 per tonne to offset the cost of replacement feed and transportation, through Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s Hay Disaster Benefit.
The federal and provincial governments also announced changes to the AgriInsurance program to allow some drought-damaged crops to be sold as livestock feed.
While these programs may help some livestock producers stay in business, many have already been forced to sell substantial portions of their herds, said Tyler Fulton, president of Manitoba Beef Producers.
“One family who we heard from at the office this week had to disperse their whole herd … They said, ‘Can you imagine seeing your years of hard work and love for farming go onto a truck?'” he said.
On Wednesday, the Ashern Auction Mart held the first of four emergency cattle auctions.
General manager Kirk Kiesman said the first sales of the year in late August and early September would normally see between 300 and 500 head of cattle sold. The sale on Wednesday had 1,500.
“We’re seeing lots of yearlings that normally wouldn’t show up until September trying to just save grass for the cattle herd,” he said.
Many farmers are selling breeding cattle that have taken generations of careful genetic selection to produce.
With dugouts running dry and hay supplies shrinking, many farmers need help to stay in business.
“What I think farmers need is a way to get a little bit more feed for the guys that, you know, can get by with the cows they have, and then I think there needs to be an investment put into farmers that have to get out,” said Keisman.
As part of the announcements on Thursday, farmers who are forced to sell cattle due to drought will be able to defer taxes on a portion of their income from the sales to next year.
Discussions are underway to create an AgriRecovery disaster relief program, Bibeau said.
Rainfall amounts across southern and central Manitoba have been well below normal.
In a news conference on Thursday, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the provincial government is operating water control structures to try to mitigate dry conditions across the province’s watersheds, but many lakes and rivers are at historic lows.
Between December 2020 and July, most southern and central Manitoba water basins received 200-250 mm less precipitation than normal for this time of the year, Schuler said.
Lake Manitoba is at its lowest recorded level, dating back to 1923. In the last month, evaporation sucked half a foot off the lake’s water level, and without substantial rainfall, it’s expected to drop by half an inch every week.
The Red River at Emerson, Man., normally flows at 6,730 cubic feet per second at this time of year. On Thursday, it was at 855 cubic feet per second — the driest it has been since 1980.
Several Manitoba municipalities have declared local states of emergency, and if conditions continue, Schuler said the Minister of Agriculture can declare a severe water shortage.
“We still believe that we have enough reservoir water, however, it is getting grim insofar as agriculture, because we started out so dry that even a moderate amount of rain simply gets absorbed and it produces no flow in any of our waterways,” Schuler said.
Schuler called on federal, municipal and First Nations partners to work with the province on water control measures in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, which makes extreme weather events more common leading to flooding one year and drought the next.
The council in the Rural Municipality of Woodlands took provincial and federal officials on a tour of the region on Wednesday. The tour included Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman MP James Bezan, Burrows MLA Diljeet Brar, and River Heights MLA Jon Gerrard.
The RM is home to many Manitoba cattle farmers, and the council arranged to show politicians first-hand what the dry and hot weather had done.
The economic impacts of the drought extend beyond the farmers themselves, affecting all aspects of life in the rural communities that depend on the industry, said Woodlands Reeve Lori Schelleken.
“It’s a multi-layer disaster going on,” she said.
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