Wildfires raze hay fields, no food for cattle; farmers need recovery plan

Written By Rob Shaw

“We’ve got to start looking at this, because we could cripple an entire industry.”

––Mike Pritchard

Business is booming at Vanderhoof’s livestock auction — and that’s bad news right now for British Columbia’s cattle sector. Droughts and wildfires have left farmers and ranchers reeling from a hay shortage, which is getting so bad that many are beginning to make the difficult decision to slaughter or sell off herds because they simply are unable to feed them.

“I’ve got people calling me and some of them are very emotional about getting rid of their cattle herd,” said Mike Pritchard, manager of the BC Livestock Producers cooperative in Vanderhoof, which runs the auctions. “They say, ‘I just don’t understand how I can do this and keep going.’”

A normal July auction in Vanderhoof is about 500 head of cattle. “I’ve got 1,800 head coming in, and I had to cut it off at 1,800 because I still need room for evacuation cattle,” said Pritchard. 

Cattle at a 2021 auction run by the BC Livestock Producers cooperative in Vanderhoof. [Image Todd Doherty Facebook]

B.C.’s agriculture sector is no stranger to droughts and wildfires. But this year is historic, with most of the province at fewer than half the average precipitation as last year. Combined with record-high temperatures, and one of the earliest melts of the snowpack in recent memory, key sections of the central interior and north are at or nearing the highest level of drought on the provincial scale.

“There’s always drought years, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Pritchard, who also has more than 35 years of experience with the BC Wildfire Service.

Fires and drought have hammered hay crops in B.C.’s central interior, through to the north and Peace region. The double whammy of fields burnt from either wildfires or the sun has devastated peak haying season in the most productive parts of the province. 

“There’s always drought years, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Mike Pritchard

The industry estimates at least a 50 per cent drop in yield. Hay prices are already running more than $200 a tonne, and some expect that to skyrocket to more than $400 before the summer is over due to simple supply and demand.

The effect of a feed shortage has rippled through the agricultural sector. Worried they might not be able to stockpile enough hay for the winter (or even the rest of the summer), farmers are starting to consider selling their cattle, in some cases breaking up carefully-selected genetic groups that have taken many years to breed. The effects are mirrored in the dairy sector as well.

‘We need help’

“We need help,” said Sage Gordon, president of the Quesnel Cattlemen’s Association, whose region includes many small-scale family calf and cow operations. “We need feed and we don’t have the resources to pay for it. We’ve been buying feed to keep going. And now with the shortage, with these fires, people are just looking at things going — you know what, we’re dumping cattle.”

B.C. has almost 4,000 cattle ranchers, with roughly 1,250 to 1,500 of those commercial ranchers. The industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year in spinoff economic benefits to the agriculture sector. Beef is also a key part of the security of the provincial food chain.

“We’re getting desperately short of pasture already,” said Kevin Boon, president of the BC Cattlemen’s Association. “A lot of guys are probably going to choose to graze the hayland, or what they’d typically put up for hay… that’s our winter feed from a part of the province we really depend upon for our hay supply.”

“We need feed and we don’t have the resources to pay for it.”

Sage Gordon

The problems are easy to identify at this point — too much sun, not enough rain, too many fires, not enough hay. But as for solutions? People are divided.

Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes said the province should declare a provincial state of emergency, which would unlock key sources of disaster financial assistance, beyond just a federal crop insurance program that is unusable to many.

“The state of emergency is what triggers our ability after the fact to go access programs that will help people on the ground,” she said.

“If we don’t pull out all those stops now, it’s going to have serious consequences down the road.”

State of emergency won’t help fight fires: minister

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said it’s not yet necessary.

The tension over when the province declares a state of emergency has become an annual occurrence in B.C.

“So far we have not used this power because it will not provide us more resources to fight fires,” Ma said Thursday.

The Cattlemen’s Association has suggested a tax deferral, so that those forced to sell cattle now can keep all their income without having to pay taxes, and use the cash to help buy back cattle to recover next year. 

But, if B.C. ranchers start selling their herds en masse due to a feed shortage, the price of cattle is going to drop. That means they’ll sell at a low level, and not have enough money next year to buy back cattle when demand sends the price spiking back up. 

Then there’s the issue of provincial financial assistance. 

Innovative solutions needed

“If there’s no hay to buy, it doesn’t help us to get a bunch of cash,” said Boon. “What we’d like to see is an opportunity to see where we can acquire some feed. What are some options out there?”

Some parts of Alberta are producing lots of hay. There’s also the idea of sourcing feed from Washington State or Oregon, though getting it to B.C.’s north could add prohibitively expensive transportation costs. 

Some have suggested running trains with feed from prairie provinces, but the rest of Canada is also dealing with fires and drought.

“If there’s no hay to buy, it doesn’t help us to get a bunch of cash.”

Kevin Boon

On the ground, some innovative solutions are shining through. Peace River North MLA Dan Davies wrote the government a letter this month asking for permission to clear Crown land in Goodlow of trees burnt during a May wildfire, so the land could be turned into community pastures. Not only would cattle get much-needed feed through new grazing areas, but it would generate wood chips that are also in high demand in the region.

Whether the provincial government can act quickly enough to seize opportunities like this, and whether bureaucrats in Victoria are innovative and nimble enough to address a multi-layered evolving drought, fire and feed crisis, is the big question.

BC United agriculture critic Ian Paton said the government should be using some of the $111 million in supplemental dollars added to the agriculture ministry’s budget this year.

“Instead it’s going to just a bunch of hokey garbage,” he said, citing agrifood tech research.

“These people have got to get off their ass and start travelling around the province and have a look at what’s happening and talk directly to ranchers,” Paton said of the NDP government.

BC should source hay for busy wildfire season

B.C. is also going to need to source some hay to help with wildfire evacuation scenarios during the rest of what’s expected to be a busy summer — both for cattle and horses that need to be relocated when ranchers are ordered out of areas.

“As we try to map out evacuations for livestock, we don’t have feed for them, and we have no place to access feed,” said Oakes. “That’s a problem.”

“As we try to map out evacuations for livestock, we don’t have feed for them.”

Coralee Oakes

Ultimately, the government will need to look beyond the summer and into how ranchers survive the winter and position themselves for next year. B.C.’s food security is at stake, as well as a multi-million-dollar industry and the livelihood of thousands of people.

Agri-recovery plan needed

“We’ve told (the province) we’ve got to start looking at an agri-recovery scenario, which is to assist the guys getting through this,” said Boon.

Another longer-term solution is for the province to step up and help farmers afford to manage their water resources better during the fall and winter, which could then help with irrigation of hay fields in the summer.

“We have to be more diligent in our water storage,” said Boon. “We can’t manage it in the sky, but we can when it hits the ground.”

“We’ve got to start looking at an agri-recovery scenario.”

Kevin Boon

Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis said she will be presenting an agri-recovery plan to the federal government for funding.

“It’s a terrible time for those farmers and my heart goes out to them,” she said in an interview.

Alexis said government staff are working “tirelessly” to find new sources of grain and hay. “Staff are working feverishly at identifying sources,” she said.

Emergency officials are involved too, said Ma. “We’re turning over every stone to try to find more feed for producers, despite the shortage across Western Canada.”

Back at the Vanderhoof auction, which is one of four main livestock auction houses in the province, Pritchard is looking to add extra auctions in August. It’s not something he relishes, watching farmers have to sell their herds. But he said it’s the humane thing to do if a farmer can’t feed the cattle, and at least this way, with the opportunity to sell, they’ll get some sort of money.

Already, the auction is seeing cow-calf pairs, which would normally not sell until the fall. “That tells you something is up,” he said.

A tax deferral will do little, because ranchers will still take a financial bath selling their herds during the glut this year. A provincial hay subsidy would just cause people to mark up the price of existing hay to take advantage of the situation, he said. 

“I’m not sure anybody knows exactly what to do,” he said. “There’s not a lot of options.”

“Unless it rains, I’m going to have to get rid of cattle myself.”

Mike Pritchard

Even a miraculous five-week rainfall that soaked the entire province (which is not the forecast) might not be enough to salvage the year amidst fears that the grass has gone to seed and wouldn’t grow anyway.

“My pastures are done, I’ve been moving cattle every four days onto hay fields I reserved from cutting because I knew I’d need those feed for those cattle,” he said.

“Unless it rains, I’m going to have to get rid of cattle myself.”

The province is going to have to assemble the best and brightest in the industry, and start making some big decisions, said Pritchard.

“We’ve got to start looking at this, because we could cripple an entire industry here,” he said.

“This could be the end for a bunch of folks. I can see that. I hate to do the doom and gloom thing. “Farmers and ranchers are eternal optimists — you always think it will be better next year. 

“But at what point do you say I can’t keep up with this?”