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Hay West program saves 17,000 cattle, but herds still being culled due to drought

Round bales of hay in a field in Lansdowne, Ontario on Sunday, July 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

A program that helps farmers in Eastern Canada ship hay to drought-affected farmers on the Prairies has saved 17,000 head of cattle, but a national farm organization said even its best efforts won’t be enough to mitigate all the losses from last summer’s extreme weather.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan farmers hoping for wet winter after drought-ravaged summer

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), said on Wednesday that 5.6 million pounds of livestock feed so far have been shipped from the Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec (where growing conditions were good this year) to struggling Western ranchers and farmers.

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A total of 75 farms have received the donated or supplied-at-cost feed, through what is called the Hay West program.

READ MORE: CFA working on initiative to send hay from Eastern Canada to Western farmers

However, Robinson said last summer’s drought — the worst in 60 years on the Prairies — shriveled crops and dried up pastures so extensively that estimates place the total shortfall of hay for livestock in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba at four million tonnes.

“The deficit of hay in the West is huge,” she said. “The shortage well exceeds our capacity. We’re never going to be able to move enough hay to save every animal in Western Canada.”

Already, some farmers have been forced to cull their herds due to fears they won’t be able to feed them through the winter. Robinson declined to comment on how many animals across Canada may have been culled so far due to drought, but said there will be long-term ramifications.

“As herds take years to build up, this culling has the very likely potential to have long-term effects on Canada’s food production,” she said.

The CFA, which administers the Hay West program, has up to 100 million tonnes of hay on offer from Eastern farmers that is available to be shipped. But Robinson said the organization hasn’t shipped any hay at all in the last month, due to a lack of funding to cover the freight costs. She said the organization is actively seeking more corporate and private donations to the program in order to speed up shipments.

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Robinson — whose voice shook as she described stories she’s heard of “bony animals at auction marts” across the Prairies — said the CFA is prioritizing farms that have valuable breeding stock as well as “farms that have water” when it decides where to ship the hay.

Last month, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe said having feed is of no benefit if farmers don’t have water for their animals. A recent report from the government of Saskatchewan warned that dugout, slough and well levels are low across that province and that ”there are concerns about livestock water supplies.“

“It gets pretty emotional. It’s difficult for people to talk about,” Robinson said

On Wednesday, the federal government announced it is pledging an additional $3 million to Hay West, after committing $1 million earlier this fall. The CFA had previously requested up to $6 million in federal funding for the program.

At a news conference in Ottawa, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she visited farms and ranches this year where crops had withered where they stood and fields were infested with grasshoppers.

“It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of grave loss and hardship experienced by these farmers,” Bibeau said, adding the federal government “will not rest until our farmers are back on their feet.”

Hay West is also exploring the possibility of shipping hay to B.C., where recent rainfall and flooding have impacted producers there. Bibeau said the federal government expects to have an agricultural disaster relief program available for farmers in that province within weeks.

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