As the impact of the upcoming drought is widespread across Alberta, some farmers and farm owners in the Wetaskiwin area are making some tough decisions.
According to provincial data, Central Alberta did not receive enough snowpack from January through February, which means many farmers may not have enough water to feed cattle or grain.
For Blakely Balhorn, a farm owner in Wetaskiwin, the current weather situation is concerning.
“I am quite worried about the conditions that we have right now, especially in early February with little snowpack,” said Balhorn, the owner of Justemre Farms Ltd.
“The moisture situation is really concerning for the grain and cattle business,” Balhorn noted.
Lack of snowfall or rain could mean pastures won’t be able to grow grass like they do in typical years, Balhorn explained.
He says that lack of grass would force him to downsize his herd.
“We would probably have to sell some cattle. That’s one of the things I certainly don’t like,” Balhorn said.
“But when we don’t have enough grass, then we have to make these [tough] decisions.”
On Jan. 25, the government of Alberta said in a press release that farmers in more than 23 municipalities – including the County of Wetaskiwin – will receive $150 per animal as a part of the 2023 Canada-Alberta Drought Livestock Assistance initiative.
According to the statement, livestock producers in eligible regions who altered their usual grazing practices due to drought conditions for more than 21 days this season can apply for financial support to cover losses incurred to manage and maintain female breeding animals such as cattle, bison, horses, elk, sheep, goats, alpacas, yak, musk ox, deer, water buffalo and llamas.
A minimum of 15 animals per type of livestock are required to qualify, according to the release.
However, Eli Shiner, owner of Shady Acres – a small farm in the county — says he doesn’t want any government help for his farm, as he prefers not to rely on government aid.
Shiner financed his own water system to have enough water available for his pasture lands and cattle. The system cost him close to $8,000.
“I have installed a proper waster system now. I am better prepared now. We have a good well to get water,” Shiner said.
But the drought hasn’t been kind to Shiner either.
The situation had him sell one of his cows so that he could provide enough feed for other cows.
“I was supposed to get a couple more cows, but then I cancelled that plan,” Shiner said.
“I decreased some of my herds because there isn’t going to be enough grass.”
Alberta Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz sent a letter to all the province’s municipalities warning that there is “significant drought” and highlighting the need for water users, water license holders and others to develop water conservation plans and water-sharing agreements.
Schulz said the government has created a Drought Command Team to respond to emergencies and the first draft of a Drought Emergency Plan has been completed.
A six-person advisory panel of provincial leaders and organizations was announced on Feb. 7.
In the meantime, Steve Majek, the director for Agricultural Services for the county, says cattle owners and grain producers have felt the impacts of the drought the most.
“It’s impacting everybody. If we continue to have a dry year, when you plant an annual crop, there’s no moisture in the ground, so your seed doesn’t germinate.”
Majek added that due to the situation, “Our dugouts are not full. If we don’t get more snow, then our dugouts are not going to be full again in the spring, which is a [negative] impact of the drought.”
There are, however, some options available for farmers to mitigate some risks of drought, such as AgriStability, moisture efficiency insurance or crop insurance.
But Majek says the county might not be able to do much more to fix the situation.
He recommends farmers have their dugouts full of water or they set up a proper water system and subscribe for an insurance premium.
Ultimately, farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature, Majek says.
“There is no program from the county to tell people country do this or do that. You can’t fight nature.”