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Drought could mean tough choices for Alberta cattle producers

Government and non-profit agencies have been trumpeting how prepared they are for a disastrous drought in Alberta, and this week the oil and gas sector joined in the chorus.

Government and non-profit agencies have been trumpeting how prepared they are for a disastrous drought in Alberta, and this week the oil and gas sector joined in the chorus.

But talk to the group that might be one of the most dramatically affected – the cattle producers – and surprisingly, there’s not a lot of doom and gloom.

There has been some speculation that the impending drought could push feed prices even higher than they already are, which might force one of two scenarios to play out later this year.

One is that producers will provide less beef to the market, pushing prices even higher than they already are at auction and ultimately in grocery stores.

Or, faced with a choice between growing or maintaining the size of their herds, more producers than normal would consider shrinking the size of their operation or even liquidating.

Turns out, in cattle – and life – things aren’t often as simple as that.

Local cattle producers are going about the business of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, perhaps because as ranchers, they’ve seen it all before.

It’s called Mother Nature.

“Mother Nature is our boss,” said fourth generation rancher John Copithorne. “It’s just that for the last few years, she’s been a bitch.”

The Agriculture Financial Services Corporation paid out $2.1 billion in 2021 and $552 million in the 2022 crop year in Alberta. Drought was the leading cause of loss for the vast majority of those claims, according to the provincial Crown corporation.

Copithorne’s not too worried about drought. In fact, during a tour of his ranch northwest of Cochrane this week, he even points out a slight tinge of green, barely discernable in the distance.

Maybe that’s the optimism that comes from being part of four generations of Copithorne ranchers – they’ve been faced with droughts before, having over 100 years on the job in this part of Alberta.

He has a slightly different perspective than those who are focusing on this year alone. Drought-like conditions have prevailed for a few years now.

“Actually, we’re probably six years now with average or below average rainfall, and grass conditions have suffered, with the last two years being brutal to say the least,” Copithorne said.

Perhaps just as important, he said, was the way the water table has gone down, resulting in springs and sloughs in many cases disappearing altogether.

“Without water you’ve got nothing,” he said.

Along with his wife Shannon, son Ty and daughter Shae, the Copithornes grow their own feed – half hay and half green feed.

In a normal year they’re able to sell what they don’t need for their own cattle. Last year they had no excess to sell, as dry conditions reduced yields dramatically.

And while the price of feed is one of the primary considerations when ranchers are making hard decisions about keeping or selling cows, it’s just one of a number of factors.

“You got to get the old calculator out, figure out what your costs for cows and calves are, what your revenue’s going to be, and that’s going to dictate how much feed you can buy. Nobody that I know of will actually go broke buying feed to save the herd – they’ll get rid of cows first,” he said.

How each producer reacts to continued shortages of grass depends on their particular situation, Copithorne said.

Some might decide they’ve had enough.

“Some guys will just say to heck with it and sell the whole darn works. Maybe they’re at a point in their life where it’s been in the back of their mind and they want to get out while cattle prices are good,” he said.

Others may react by taking older cows out of circulation, resulting in a younger, more useful herd.

“I’d say most of the guys in this area are probably going to go into this year with fewer cows.”

He estimates he’ll have maybe a 15 per cent reduction in herd size.

Prices are so good right now that he also estimates his total revenues are going to be about the same as last year, even with the reduction in numbers.

Ranchers have seen it all before

Scott Grattidge of the Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation is a bit of a student of the history of cattle, who sounds more like a professor.

He looks to the past for context.

There have been 40 droughts in the past 350 years on the western Canadian prairies.

And the cattle industry, like any business, is multi-faceted.

“I talked to a fencing supplier yesterday, and he’s not selling any fencing because most guys, if they’ve got anything close to a cull cow, they’re shipped off to market, because they’re getting top dollar,” Grattidge said.

For those looking to build their herds by buying cows, the present pricing scenario might put them off.

“You’re trying to build your herd with a very high-priced machine,” he said.

Grattidge cautioned against applying overly simplistic analysis, which might be informative for other industries, but not cattle.

“The widget doesn’t get built in a day, it gets built in 18 months, so what’s the price going to be? That’s always the challenge.”

In the ‘Dirty Thirties’, farming practices contributed to turning the Canadian prairies into a dust bowl.

Early settlers saw the prairie as an endless sea of grass and didn’t think about preserving it. Rotational grazing has become the more common, which protects the grasses.

Grattidge said the provincial government has been proactive in talking drought this spring because they don’t have much choice.

“What if the government does nothing and we have a drought . . .”

“All of a sudden you’re going to have citizens, industry – you name it – fighting (over water),” he said.

Canfax executive director Brenna Grant also cautions against trying to predict what a drought might mean for beef prices this fall. The supply and demand equation for beef doesn’t react that fast.

“We have to remember that the driver of beef prices is the cattle cycle. In North America, we have a 10 to 12 year cattle cycle. When we get the price signal to expand, it takes us two to three years for the supply chain to respond,” she said.

Canfax is the market analysis division of the Canadian Cattle Association.

“I would really caution against making any assumptions this early in the season,” she said.

In fact, Grant pointed out that it may not be possible to make generalizations about how a dry summer might affect the average producer, since last year’s rainfall was so spotty some ranches got rain while their neighbours did not.

The heart of the matter

All of the economics don’t reflect the bond between the land and the rancher.

On a sunny spring day with the mountains in the background, the 63-year-old Copithorne speaks fondly of the life he’s chosen and doesn’t seem too worried about the weather.

“This is quite the office,” he says with a smile.

Even though he thinks he lost a day-old calf to a coyote the night before, he holds no grudges. He regrets not having his camera with him when he came across a mother coyote with a litter of cubs sleeping alongside a young calf a few years ago.

The respect for nature runs deep. It’s in the genes.

Great grandfather John Copithorne came to this land in 1883 from Ireland.

At one time the Copithorne family ranched a swath of land stretching from Cochrane to Bragg Creek. Clarence Copithorne was largely responsible for the forming of the Cochrane Ranche Park as a historic site.

Maybe after calving in minus 20 degree weather, keeping an eye out for coyotes, wolves, cougars, and diseases, and dealing with rising input costs, he just doesn’t have much time to worry about things he has absolutely no control over.

Things like beef prices, which are completely independent of anything individual producers can do.

Or how much rain may or may not be on the way.

Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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