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The Horsethief Creek wildfire burns west of Invermere, B.C. Fires and drought have left agricultural producers searching to find hay and feed for their animals.HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

British Columbia is looking to the U.S. to source hay and other livestock feed, as supply is limited by persisting drought conditions across nearly two-thirds of the province.

B.C. Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis on Tuesday announced a new Access to Feed program, in partnership with the BC Cattlemen’s Association, to match sellers of hay and feed with farmers and producers.

“We know all of Western Canada is being impacted by drought, so we’re looking at other jurisdictions where they may be some surplus hay,” said Ms. Alexis, adding that the program is available to producers of all sectors and sizes.

The imported feed will come at a higher cost for local producers, but both the Agriculture Minister and Kevin Boon, the BCCA’s general manager, said it was too early to estimate by how much, pending details of sourcing, pricing and transportation. The province is providing $150,000 to the BCCA to support the program.

B.C. is among a wide swath of the world now grappling with unseasonably hot and dry conditions, driven by greenhouse gas emissions and the return of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño. Nearly two-thirds of the province is experiencing severe drought. Of the 34 water basins throughout B.C., 13 are at Drought Level 4, meaning adverse effects to ecosystems are likely, and eight are at Drought Level 5, meaning adverse effects are almost certain to occur.

Parched conditions in B.C. mean that ranchers will have to look across the border, “where things are a little sweeter,” Mr. Boon said.

“We do know that the Northern states, and the states along the West Coast, have had an abundance of supply over the last two years,” he told a news conference Tuesday. “So we’re looking there first. Of course, the farther away we go, the more of the transportation cost, so we’re looking for closer to home.”

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Mr. Boon said that the program will also look to other provinces, but noted much of the prairie region was experiencing abnormally dry conditions as well. Some alternative feeds – such as screening pellets, which are a byproduct of the grain-cleaning sector – may also be available through the ports in Prince Rupert and Vancouver, he said.

Mr. Boon characterized the looming shortage as an animal welfare issue, and said the extreme weather events of the past several years have dwindled the reserves that ranchers and farmers typically keep on hand.

Ms. Alexis added that the province received approval for late participation in the federal AgriStability program, which helps farmers offset unexpected income losses. This means those who did not enroll before the April 30 deadline can do so now.

“These payments will be especially helpful to those smaller producers who need to cover expenses like increased cost of hay and feed,” the Agriculture Minister said. “They are also the ones primarily having to make the tough business decisions right now with regards to whether they send their cattle to auction early.”

Andy Wolfe, who operates the family-owned Mount Lehman Farm with 140 head of cattle in Abbotsford, said loss of farmland to industrial usage led to shrinking production of hay, a problem compounded by the drought.

Hay prices are now skyrocketing: Large bales that cost $65 last year are now $130, and even that price required negotiation with suppliers. Thanks to his “farmer’s intuition,” Mr. Wolfe said, he stockpiled enough to last his herd until next year.

“My concern is if this year’s drought is going to affect next year’s prices,” he added. “I made it through this year and I am going to be OK this winter, but if the drought continues, I don’t know what I’m going to have to pay for hay.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 458 active wildfires burning in B.C., including 23 that were either highly visible or pose a potential threat to public safety. Among those is the Horsethief Creek fire west of Invermere, which has triggered an evacuation order for 25 properties and an evacuation alert for 1,041 others.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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