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Alta. ranchers urged to insure feed supplies

With “large pockets” of Alberta’s central, northern and Peace River farming areas sitting on “extremely low” soil moisture headed toward spring, the provincial ag insurer is urging ranchers to consider hay and pasture insurance.

Soil conditions have many cattle producers hanging onto their hay bales and declining opportunities to sell, provincial forage specialist Bjorn Berg said in a recent release from Alberta’s Agriculture Financial Services Corp. (AFSC).

Producers are waiting anxiously for spring, “hoping that once the ground thaws, they’ll get enough spring rain to replenish soil moisture for their hay and pasture crops, which are essential for feeding their animals,” Berg said.

But most of the province is dry due to the lack of rain before the ground froze in the fall, said Ralph Wright, a soil moisture specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) in Edmonton, in the AFSC release. Many regions are seeing soil moisture levels at one-in-12-to-25-year lows, on average, he said.

“It means there is an increased risk of drought, and less capacity to resist short-term dry spells, during the upcoming growing season. That is, unless above-average spring rains arrive in time to turn everything around,” Wright said. “We’ve seen unbelievable turnarounds in the past, so it’s extremely hard to predict.”

That said, “our records show only six years since 1961 when some region of the province didn’t suffer an extreme lack of rain during the growing season” and low soil moisture going into spring puts some areas at greater risk, he added.

Furthermore, many of Alberta’s haylands are older, and put cattle producers at “even greater” risk of forage crop failures if soil moisture falls short this spring, said Berg, who works for ARD’s crop business development branch in Lethbridge.

“As hay stands age, the plants usually thin out significantly by the fifth year and the nutrients and moisture in the soil become depleted, making them more vulnerable to drought conditions.”

Snowmelt may replenish soils somewhat, but usually the soil is still frozen when the snow melts, so most of it runs off into sloughs, rivers and lakes, Wright said. “That extra surface water can increase the possibility of more spring rains, but there are no guarantees.”

Given current hay prices, Berg urged Alberta cattle producers to “look at ways to balance their risk” and noted the deadline to buy hay and pasture insurance in Alberta is Saturday, Feb. 28.

“Drought isn’t the only peril covered by our perennial insurance programs, but it’s the one people think about most because it can be so devastating financially,” John Kresowaty, co-ordinator of perennial insurance programs for AFSC, said in the Crown corporation’s release. “We paid out $6.5 million through our hay and pasture programs last year — much of it because of drought.”

Apart from insurance, Berg said, “other options include contracting forage from someone else, and hope they get good yields. Or you could try renting more land for forage crops.”

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