Manitoba Interlake ranchers face desperate situation

Updated, May 12 — Cattle producers in Manitoba’s Interlake are frantically trying to move their herds out of the Lake Manitoba region this week after receiving emergency evacuation warnings because of rising flood waters.

Producers in nearly a dozen municipalities around the lower basin of Lake Manitoba have been put on evacuation alert for as water levels rise to dangerous levels.

Provincial authorities warned area residents at a meeting held in a local community hall earlier this week that evacuation notices for themselves and their livestock could be issued.

Those evacuations could potentially involve scores of producers and thousands of animals. It could be the largest mass movement of cattle in recent Manitoba history.

Many producers say they are at a loss as to know where to relocate their animals and how to go about doing so.

“We’re being left to our own devices,” said local producer Mark Emilson.

Emilson said he received a call from his local municipality on the weekend telling him he should be prepared to move himself and his cattle at a moment’s notice.

Emilson, whose 400 cows are just finishing calving, said he hung up the phone stunned by the news.

“It was surreal,” he said.

As of Wednesday, the threat of evacuation loomed for flood-threatened producers in rural municipalities bordering on the lower basin of Lake Manitoba. Those include: Lakeview, Westbourne, Portage la Prairie, Woodlands, St. Laurent, Coldwell, Eriksdale, Siglunes, Lake Manitoba, Grahamdale and the LGD of Alonsa. More RMs could be affected in the days ahead.

Late Wednesday, the provincial cattle producers’ association stepped in and named itself as “the first point of contact from this point forward for all producers affected by the current flood crisis.”

Manitoba Beef Producers urged producers to contact its Winnipeg office “immediately” if they have an “immediate situation or call to evacuation,” are “in need of available pasture land or cattle boarding,” or suffered losses of livestock in the snowstorm that hit parts of the province the weekend of April 30.

Heavy spring runoff, chronic wet conditions from successive wet summers and water diverted from the flooded Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba have combined to drastically raise lake levels, forcing water inland and threatening homes and farms.

Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives estimates an additional 200 square miles of land along the shoreline are covered by flood water this spring.

“First responsibility”

Producers are scrambling desperately to locate places to move cattle and for trucks to transport them there.

MAFRI promises to help but says it’s mainly up to producers to help themselves.

“The owner has the first responsibility to deal with their situation,” said Gerald Huebner, MAFRI acting assistant deputy minister.

“If they’re unable, we suggest they go to their municipal emergency measures co-ordinator. Through the emergency management system, our department will ensure that animals are not under threat, either from feed shortage or from inundation.”

Art Jonasson, who is only days away from having his access road cut off by encroaching flood water, said he has so far located pasture space for half of his 300 cattle near Gladstone on the other side of the lake.

But getting them there will be a huge challenge, Jonasson said.

Rounding them up from muddy pastures is one problem. Loading them is another. Jonasson said he knows one producer who will have to haul cattle 30 miles in trailers just to get them to an appropriate loading site. 

Leaving cattle cut off by flood waters is not an option because they would have no feed.

“We can’t let our animals starve,” Jonasson said.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers on Tuesday declared a provincial livestock emergency, enabling the government to open up Crown lands and wildlife refuges for emergency grazing.

According to Manitoba Beef Producers, leaseholders on Crown land have been granted the ability to sublet to producers in need of pasture, and are advised to contact the MBP office for help in that process.

“Special arrangements”

Huebner said MAFRI will ensure through provincial animal welfare legislation that livestock which producers cannot help will be cared for.

“In cases where feed needs to be purchased and special arrangements need to be made, we’re prepared to do that.”

The province also relaxed road weight restrictions to help move livestock, feed and machinery.

Manitoba Beef Producers this week issued a province-wide call for farmers to assist fellow producers facing an evacuation risk.

“The immediate difficulty is moving cattle through the mud and down roads that are almost impassable and that’s causing stress and frustration,” said Martin Unrau, a MacGregor, Man. producer and Canadian Cattlemen’s Association vice-president.

That stress was evident last week as producers wondered if moving their cattle was even possible.

“This is more than a crisis. This is dev astation,” said Theresa Johnson, who raises cattle with her husband Greg.

Even if cattle can be evacuated, it’s only a temporary measure, said Jonasson. He worried about the condition of pastures after flood waters finally subside weeks from now.

“They’re not going to have pastures to come back to.”

— Ron Friesen is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator in Winnipeg.

CLARIFICATION FROM SOURCE, May 12: Manitoba Beef Producers on Thursday noted that it’s meant to be the first point of contact to streamline the process for matching producers with needed pastureland or boarding facilities, and will assist producers facing an “immediate situation or call to evacuation.”

However, MBP said Thursday, any producers affected by impending flooding threats must first of all contact their local RM office, and their local MAFRI office or GO centre. An emergency command centre (204-945-8000) has been set up to deal with any animal welfare issues and transport of cattle or feed. Producers can also check the province’s online listings for available hay, hay or straw wanted, pasture for rent/pasture wanted, cattle boarding, alternative feeds and custom trucking services.

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