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Alarm Bells Ring on Drought 'Disaster'

Environment  (tags: climate, climate-change, water, rain, cows )

- 3646 days ago -
Jerry Murphy has lived on 640 acres of rolling grassland just west of the Red Deer River for half a century, but he's never seen a spring like this one. "The hills look like sawdust, really, that colour," he said from his ranch, a short drive from Elno


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cowboss a (68)
Saturday June 20, 2009, 1:08 pm
Jerry Murphy has lived on 640 acres of rolling grassland just west of the Red Deer River for half a century, but he's never seen a spring like this one.

“The hills look like sawdust, really, that colour,” he said from his ranch, a short drive from Elnora, Alta. “I've never seen it where the grass didn't turn green in the spring before.”

He normally turns his 50 cow-calf pairs loose to graze in the first week of May. This year, he's still feeding them what hay he can find – much of it poor quality, all of it expensive. It costs him more than twice as much to feed hay as to rent grazing land.

Farmers and ranchers across a vast section of Alberta and Saskatchewan are staring down the same ominous fields of parched soil and brown crops.

In portions of the hardest-hit region, which stretches in a triangle pattern from Saskatoon to Edmonton and Calgary, 2009 marks the driest spring Agriculture Canada has seen in the 70 years records have been kept in the area.

The arid soil, combined with record-cold temperatures, have killed many cash crops and left ranchers with pastures of brown stubble to feed cattle.

Producers say the circumstances are ominously comparable to those of 2002, when much of the Prairies grappled with the worst drought in 133 years. Farm incomes sunk by 70 per cent in some regions and growers as far away as PEI shipped their hay to desperate western cattleman.

“Conditions are very similar to 2002,” said Trevor Hawden, an agri-climate specialist with Agriculture Canada. “Only it's larger and more severe in places.”

Last Thursday, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) cut its wheat, durum and barley forecasts by 20 per cent due to the dry, cool conditions. And its all-wheat yield estimates stand at 33.4 bushels an acre, the lowest projection in seven years.

“Since last Thursday, conditions have only continued to deteriorate,” said Bruce Burnett, CWB director of weather and market analysis. “Yield potentials are very low. In practical terms, farmers are looking at their options.

One such option is writing off the crop. Insurance adjusters are already combing fields in western Saskatchewan to assess crops. Insurance will pay out for all direct crop expenses such as seed and fertilizer. But farmers are generally on their own when it comes to monthly payments on equipment and land.

Earlier this week, the National Farmer's Union, called on the federal government to lay out a concrete disaster assistance plan so that farmers know what kind of aid they qualify for should crops continue to wither.

“There is not predictable disaster program in place,” said NFU President Stewart Wells. “By the time the feds and the provinces are done wrangling over assistance, farmers have usually missed payments.”

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz's office did not return a call for comment.

A dump of rain could change the drought picture considerably for some. Others have already passed the point of no return.

Leon Stang's farm, 250 kilometres west of Saskatoon, soaked up half a centimetre of rain over the past two days, but the moisture was too little, too late.

“I'm in the nightmare” he said. “Our hay and grass is toast. The cash crops are toast. The early seeded crops are toast.”

He's had to ship his 600 head of cattle 240 kilometres north to greener pastures. Some of his neighbours have taken to buying hay.

Ranchers looking to avoid those costs have been selling so many cattle that some auctions have stopped taking them. Prices, normally around $1,250 this time of year for a cow-calf pair, dropped to $700. Mr. Murphy himself called up his son-in-law this week, and asked him to drive up from Calgary to help brand the herd. He was preparing to sell them off.

It is a stressful situation, even for a man who admits he runs livestock mostly as a “hobby.” Ever since the mad cow scare, it has been difficult to make a living off of cattle.

“I'm old enough that I could retire and quit, but I don't like to be forced out of it, especially by a drought,” he said. “You're pretty stressed about it.”

Mr. Murphy does, however, have hope. On Wednesday night, he watched his parched land suck up two centimetres of rain. He knows he needs more, and he knows that this drought will create problems for months to come: a dry spring will affect hay crops, which will in turn create difficulties in the coming winter.

Still, he has put off the branding for now, in hopes that more rain will fall.

“When that rain starts falling down, it's a great relief,” he said.
Join the Discussion:Sorted by: Oldest first

Simone D (1462)
Saturday June 20, 2009, 1:14 pm
Thank you Ivan.

Jamie L (195)
Saturday June 20, 2009, 1:19 pm

Karen S (106)
Saturday June 20, 2009, 1:56 pm
Here we go again. Gerry Ritz is not answering. Probably trying to get the word-smiths on the phone to write him an insincere letter about how concerned he is for the plight of the Canadian farmer and how the government has programs in place already to address this. I don't want to over analyze this, but to keep farmers on farm subsidies to keep them viable is not addressing the problem; it's only addressing one of the symptoms. How about downsizing some herds and renegotiating some of our trade agreements so farms can be sustainable with the resources that they have and farmers can get a decent price for their cattle.

Joycey B (750)
Saturday June 20, 2009, 4:20 pm
This is terrible. Thanks Ivan.

Tierney G (381)
Sunday June 21, 2009, 8:24 am
Very disturbing especially for up north to have brown grass in spring. Thanks Ivan

Past Member (0)
Sunday June 21, 2009, 8:33 am
NOted and thanks Ivan

mary f (200)
Monday June 22, 2009, 1:44 am
thanks cowboss very scary

Beth G (12)
Monday June 22, 2009, 1:24 pm
Drought has been part of land history for centuries. The sad part is so much land here in the states and in Canada is misused and stripped of nutrients as well as not rotated. Crops rotation makes the earth healthier. And with better planning water storage could be designed so that some part of the land has reservoirs. Sadly money in the short run has become more important than sustainable land use where water is more reliable. Also remember it costs more money to raise a pound of beef than it does to raise a pound of non animal food items. Here in California in the food basket of the world also called the San Joaquin Valley, we have turned valuable farm land into subdivision made up of 4k square foot homes for three people, and yards that waste water growing non edible grass. We as a people need to demand change. The only things I grow in my yard are fruits and vegetables. And my home is 800sq feet in size. This for a family of three.

Past Member (0)
Monday June 22, 2009, 2:37 pm

Dick challenged this article with the statements here for his claims. I tend to agree with him. Anyone can raise a claim as suffering from this and that, but more reality must come to the table before raised claims can be justified. The rule of common sense and use of common reason must be the foundation for any rule of law for mankind to function on. And it appears to me that the land in question has never been proven to be the best land to raise cattle or crops.

Dick Garneau's page
Male, Age: 71, Calgary
About Me:
'History Buff' (enthusiast)

David Roberts: Members of the John Palliser a wealthy Irish landowner, expedition of (1857-1859) included Dr. James Hector, geologist-doctor, Eugene Bourgeau, a French botanist, Thomas Wright Blakistan and John William Sullivan under Royal Geographical Society, the British government and the HUDSON BAY COMPANY, claimed that while the semi-arid area (Prairies) was ill-suited for civilization, a northerly fertile belt could maintain stock-raising and agriculture. The HBC did not support colonization as it interfered with business. Why we honor this inept expedition is beyond my understanding.

The Henry Youle Hind (1823-1908) George Gladman and Simon James Dawson expedition of (1857-1858) saw the potential for agriculture of the Prairies basically refuting the Palliser expedition results.

BC Edmontonian says "This is just the start - scientists have been predicting droughts of greater severity at greater regularity with the onset of global warming." The worst droughts on the Prairies occurred in the 13th and 16th century, and there is no correlation with Global Warming. In fact 100-greenhouse gas scientist refute your statement.

Drought on the Prairies is usually associated with cooler weather.


cowboss a (68)
Monday June 22, 2009, 2:47 pm
Thanx Dwight and to all of you who have found this article interesting. I love the comments -- good work.

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