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Rachel Herbert moves cattle on her family-run ranch near Nanton, Alta., on July 4.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Rachel Herbert spent the past few days fixing up her water pump. The water in her well was barely reaching it. The surrounding streams had slowed to a trickle, or were bone dry.

Her cattle ranch, Trail’s End Beef, is located in Nanton, Alta., a community that has received a third of its usual rainfall this spring and early summer.

For now, her cows are grazing on pasture, which has survived the drought. But the lack of rain has made it impossible for her to grow enough hay, which she uses to feed her animals in winter. She will have to buy some from elsewhere and ship it in, an extra cost.

“I’m honestly losing track of how many years it’s been dry,” Ms. Herbert said.

Southern Alberta deals with drought after hot spring

Foothills County, just north of Nanton, is one of many counties across Alberta that have declared states of agricultural disaster this summer. Ranchers in these regions have been dealing with dry conditions since 2021. But this year might mark a turning point. Exhaustion after years of drought, as well as bleak prospects for weather in the future, are leading many producers to reduce the numbers of cattle in their herds to near record lows.

It will take years to rebuild. This could lead to supply problems, and higher prices. And it’s a knock to an industry that is intertwined with Alberta’s culture.

“Cattle producers are really concerned about how they’re going to feed their animals,” said Caleb Scott, who manages agricultural issues for the Foothills as the county’s agricultural fieldman.

As a result of the drought in the Foothills, 50 per cent of the agricultural producers in the county are predicting decreases of 60 per cent in their yields of hay, grain and pasture, compared with a five-year average. This is why the local council declared an agricultural disaster on June 28, Mr. Scott said.

The declaration is a tool for boosting support from other levels of government. After counties across Canada declared agricultural disasters in 2021, for example, the federal government made drought-damaged crops available as feed for livestock farmers, alongside other measures.

But government assistance won’t come quickly enough. Ranchers must make decisions now.

Ms. Herbert, for her part, is selling more sausages, ground beef and jerky – meat from the mother cows she normally keeps for breeding, but does not have the hay to feed throughout the winter.

Although she has access to pasture, she knows many other ranchers who don’t. They may have to cull their herds even more severely.

Grazing cattle on dry pasture land is bad for the soil and could hinder grazing in winter and future seasons. The cost of shipping in hay from elsewhere in Canada comes out to about $5 for every kilometre travelled. A single shipment could set a producer back $1,000 just for transportation, excluding the cost of the hay, according to Mr. Scott.

As a result, ranchers are turning to the auction market to sell off their cattle.

“We’ve seen this coming over the last couple of years because of the weather conditions,” said Rob Bergevan, owner of Foothills Auctioneers. “But not to this level.”

Mr. Bergevan has been an auctioneer for 35 years. Typically, this is the quiet time of year. But this season 30 per cent more cattle than normal are coming to market, he said.

According to Mr. Bergevan, ranchers are selling breeding stock and yearlings.

Breeding stock, the mothers that birth calves, are the most valuable cattle kept by ranchers. These cows carry carefully selected genes and, when sold for breeding purposes, are worth 10 times the price of their meat. But cash-strapped ranchers are nevertheless now selling them for meat, Mr. Bergevan said.

Yearlings, which are one-year-old calves, are worth more when sold in the fall, compared with spring. Grazing them on pasture over the summer increases their weight, and the price they fetch at market.

To Mr. Bergevan, the influx of yearlings and breeding stock suggests ranchers are making costly decisions to preserve pasture land for winter and next season.

But some in the cattle industry worry that this is a marker of a general exodus.

“The average cow-calf owner is 55 and above,” said Wade Nelson, who is the owner of Highwood Valley Ranch Beef, and also a member of the Foothills Agricultural Services Board. “They’re getting faced with their third, forth year of pretty dramatic challenges. Why would you keep your cow herd around?”

A reduction in the ranks of cattle ranchers would fit with the general downward trend in national herd numbers. Already, the number of cattle in Canada, at 11.27 million, is the lowest in more than 30 years.

The downturn started in 2003, with a mad cow outbreak that shut down exports and devastated the industry, said J.P. Gervais, chief economist at Farm Credit Canada.

Consistent drought conditions have caused the industry to contract, Mr. Gervais added. The pinch has been felt not only on ranches, but also at feedlots and processing facilities, he said.

Over time, he said, this will lead to a contraction in supply that will result in higher prices for beef.

But Mr. Gervais said he is unsure whether this will lead to decreased interest from consumers. Demand for beef has remained high, despite high prices.

“When you look at the consumer, it looks positive,” Mr. Gervais said. “Despite all of the pressures of consumers, high interest rates, inflation, all these things, they seem to be consuming beef still. They seem to value the beef.”

Back in Nanton, Ms. Herbert is focused on surviving yet another tough year.

With more droughts on the horizon, she would like to see the provincial government guarantee protections for water sources. In particular, she pointed to the Oldman watershed, an essential source of water for her ranch and others. The watershed is part of the eastern slopes of Alberta. It consists largely of public land that has drawn significant interest from coal mining companies.

“Water is the most precious resource here,” Ms. Herbert said.

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