Federal support not enough to save Manitoba farms that are going dry: farm couple

Government supports for farmers struggling with some of the driest conditions seen in years won’t go far enough to save some livestock producers from selling off their herds, say one Manitoba farming couple.

“I never thought it would get this bad out here, but it’s a dire emergency out here,” said Aaron Osioway. “It is real bad.”

At a news conference in Winnipeg on Thursday, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced a number of programs meant to help farmers, including tax deferrals for livestock producers forced to sell part or all of their herds due to a lack of feed.

As well, insured livestock feed producers can get an extra $44 per tonne to offset the cost of replacement feed and transportation, through Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s hay disaster benefit.

It’s an old program and it’s a Band-Aid. It doesn’t help all farmers … insure their crop because it costs too much and the payout is not enough.– April Osioway

April Osioway, Aaron’s wife, says the programs don’t add any new supports for farmers, but simply amount to tweaks of existing programs.

“It’s an old program and it’s a Band-Aid. It doesn’t help all farmers… insure their crop because it costs too much and the payout is not enough. People don’t insure their hay land, typically, ever,” she said.

The biggest challenge for livestock farmers will be the cost of transporting feed from other provinces, Aaron says.

“Parts of Saskatchewan are already really impacted by the drought as well, so I just don’t know how we’re going to pull this hay into our province,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Ashern Auction Mart held an emergency cattle auction, an event “unheard of” this early in the year, according to Keystone Agricultural Producers president Bill Campbell.

“They had cattle going through and there are guys that have tears in their eyes,” said April Osioway. “They’re just, they’re so broken. Everyone is so broken across the province.”

‘Limited’ options

Options for farmers struggling to feed their herds are “limited,” Campbell says, adding the major benefit coming out of Bibeau’s Thursday’s visit is the chance for her to see with her own eyes what farmers in Manitoba facing.

“I honestly believe that seeing is believing,” Campbell said, “and walking through the fields and seeing the impact has had a significant impact on her assessment of the situation.”

Matthew Atkinson, a cattle farmer in Neepawa and a director with Manitoba Beef Producers, attended the minister’s announcement on Thursday, and says he appreciated her making the trip to the province.

However, he added, the problems facing Manitoba farmers didn’t develop overnight.

For years now, the hay Atkinson has harvested off his fields has been dwindling. What hasn’t been stunted by drought is often devoured by swarms of grasshoppers.

“I’d usually be expecting to get about 275 to 350 bales, in an average year,” he said. “The past couple of years, I’ve been working at about 140-bale average. In a year like this, I got 52.”

Those fewer bales come at an increased cost in terms of time and expenses to harvest, which forces him to raise prices to sell to other farmers in desperate need of feed.

At this time in a normal year, the Osioway family would all be engaged in cutting hay, baling and raking. Now, their days are filled by hauling water out to their cattle.

That’s something they never had to do until this year when the swamp in the middle of their land that once fed the groundwater dried up.

Campbell says there’s only so much that government supports can do, when the only thing that would truly help is out of any human control — rain.