Drought Research Initiative
BILL GRAVELAND GALGARY — The Canadian Press, Tuesday, Jun. 16, 2009 02:56AM EDT

Rancher Jon Fox is doing something that he never thought he'd be doing at this time of year - still feeding his 400 head of black Angus cattle near Lloydminster, Sask.

Usually by this time, his animals are out in the pasture, grazing on grass that has greened up after a long winter and moist spring. But dust bowl conditions and cooler-than-normal temperatures in a huge swath of Alberta and Saskatchewan are threatening producers who may be struggling to find enough feed for their cattle in the months ahead. Mr. Fox has put in an order for feed pellets to help augment his cattle's diet.

"We put some feed out last weekend and got some rain and we've already let a lot of the cattle on to where we normally hay," says Mr. Fox, whose Justamere Ranch covers 1,400 hectares.

"If we don't get any rain in the next short while, we're going to have to start feeding all the time and a guy doesn't want to do that." The problem area runs from Edmonton east to Saskatoon and as far south as Calgary to eastern Alberta and western and central Saskatchewan. "That's a huge chunk of agricultural area," said Trevor Hadwen, an agri-climate specialist with Agriculture Canada. "We're getting reports of water-supply shortages on farms, which is fairly early in the season.

"There's been very little run-off. There's a large area where it's a one-in-100 year event."

Mr. Hadwen said a large region has received only about 40 per cent of normal rainfall for the area and the situation seems to be getting worse.

"There are some areas that are record dry according to Environment Canada climate records. There's a fairly large area that has not received very much rainfall in a number of years and that area has been growing into west-central Saskatchewan and southern Alberta as well," Mr. Hadwen added.

"We've seen a pattern like this in 2002. In 2007 and 2008, this area was dry as well."

In 2002, Western Canada experienced the worst drought in 133 years. Hay and grain crops were reduced throughout 75 per cent of Alberta. In Saskatchewan, there was a 70 per cent drop in farm income from the previous year.

There were 110,000 tonnes of hay shipped west from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and two "Say Hay"' concerts raised $1-million to help pay for the transport.
"Yeah, I think it's very similar to 2002 for us. The only thing different is we're still pretty good for water in our dug outs," said Mr. Fox.

"I think everyone pretty well is in the same boat. I know there are guys even drier than us."

Mr. Fox said there is hay still available but it is poor quality and expensive and likely to get more pricey.

Buddy Leachman from Big Gully Farm in Maidstone, Sask., said things couldn't be much worse.

"It's not good at all," he said. "There is no feed left. Very much like 2002."

Environment Canada said that while Manitoba has had more precipitation than usual, Alberta and Saskatchewan appear to be in trouble. Temperatures are also lower than normal.

"Temperature wise? We've had a very cool winter and early spring," said Bill McMurtry, a meteorologist in Calgary. "Most locations in southern and central Alberta and Saskatchewan, five of the last six months have seen below normal temperatures."

Mr. McMurtry said temperatures have been lower than normal since December.

The lower temperatures have added to the problems for farmers and ranchers, said Mr. Hadwen.

"The producers that we're talking to are having problems not only with water supplies in the dry region but also forage growth. It's just too cold to actually grow the pasture," he said. "A lot of farmers are still feeding their cattle as if it was winter. The pastures just aren't coming up because there's no water."

The lack of moisture is likely to cause a problem in Prairie forests, too.

The fire hazard ranges from moderate in southern Alberta to high in the northern regions, said Anastasia Drummond with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

"The further north and east you go the hazard is climbing," said Ms. Drummond.

"Each consecutive day we don't see organized rainfall that hazard will continue to climb. Add to that we're also heading into lightning season and that will present a whole new set of challenges. The lightning is when things really start to heat up."