Flying over the southern Prairies during the summertime months is like looking out over a giant patchwork quilt with all the different crops sown into boxes neatly framed by square-mile grids.
This year, that quilt might be showing a few odd-shaped holes and the edges might be a bit ragged. Farmers desperate to catch up to the growing season will be working around any low spots that, despite all their efforts at drainage, still show up in the wet years.
It’s no secret that this year is wet, a fact neatly summarized by the latest provincial crop report.
"No part of agro-Manitoba has received less than 131 per cent of normal rainfall for the period of April 12 to May 22, while large parts of Central and Eastern Manitoba have had over 260 per cent of normal rain during that time," it says.
The moisture was badly needed after several dry years that culminated in last year’s drought, including a six-week spell at a critical time in the crop development cycle with excessive heat and no rain at all.
Everyone is happy to see the risk of drought diminished. Now, if only they can get a crop seeded and those weather-stressed cattle herds out on grass without destroying their pastures.
This was a good week, dry and warm, but it came after weeks of soggy weather. Seeding progress is at just over 10 per cent, well behind the five-year-average of 77 per cent.
As well, the growth is off to a slow start. Growing degree days across the province for the month of May were between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of normal.
Nearly half of Manitoba farms also raise cattle, representing about 11 per cent of the national cattle herd. Many of this year’s calves were born during those late-spring snowstorms. Thousands didn’t survive, despite producers’ best efforts to keep them sheltered and warm.
It’s a loss that hits much deeper than sheer economics. These ranchers grieve the loss of those lives as well their lost investment in the future.
Other sectors within livestock, such as hogs or poultry, have consolidated around a small number of genetic types suited to standardized management in controlled housing.
Cattle producers manage their own genetic selections. No two herds in this province are exactly alike. Those herds are built one calf crop at a time, with producers selecting replacement stock that suits their management approach and their specific grazing or feeding environment.
A herd that lives in the bush and grazes swaths of forage left beneath the snow will have different characteristics than a herd that lives in a sheltered yard where feed is brought in.
On top of all that, producers must now bear the cost of carrying cows for another year before there is any hope of a return on that investment.
Tyler Fulton, a Birtle farmer and president of Manitoba Beef Producers, said there are reports of producers losing a third to half of their calves this spring. The survivors have needed extra TLC to overcome wet-weather diseases such as scours (diarrhea) and pneumonia.
"The best thing for these animals is to get them spread out on dry ground where there is tons of nutrition for them," Fulton said in an interview Friday.
However, finding dry ground has been hard and pasture growth has been delayed. Putting the cattle out on wet pastures will provide some short-term feed but it comes at a high cost too. The hooves will churn up that pasture so badly, it’s basically a sacrifice to the altar of survival. Those forages will have to re-established, a process that takes a year or more.
With more rain in the forecast, the push is on this weekend — on all fronts. Cattle are on the move. Crop farmers are prioritizing the crops most likely to pay off. They are attempting alternative methods such as broadcasting the seed. They are modifying their crop mixes, in some cases sowing annual forages that can be grazed or harvested as silage.
No two stories will be the same as they do what farmers do best — adapt on the fly.
Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at email@example.com
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.