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Northwestern Ontario drought reaching ‘critical’ level, says beef rep

Regional producers seeking state of emergency to help mitigate damage to industry, access relief funding.

Construction getting underway on a brand-new cattle sales barn in Rainy River should be cause for celebration for the area's cattle producers.

Instead, concern is growing about the future of the local cattle industry as a persistent drought threatens the viability of this year's pasture.

For weeks, temperatures have soared into the high 20s and mid-30s with little precipitation to offer a break. Forest fires ravaging nearby regions are showing no signs of abatement.

The hot, dry conditions have had a devastating impact on pasture – the grasses grown to feed cattle – and the situation is now “critical,” said Kim Jo Bliss, secretary of the Rainy River Cattlemen's Association and the Northern Ontario field representative with Beef Farmers of Ontario.

“We've never experienced this,” Bliss said. “We've had dry times, but this is quite amazing, and not in a good way.”

Images making their way around social media help tell the story of current conditions. Brown, shrivelled plants poking out of the cracked, dusty soil amid a backdrop of smoky skies: it's more like something out of a movie than real life, Bliss said.

Without pasture to feed their herds, many producers are now faced with the “heartbreaking” decision to sell their cattle just to stay afloat, she noted.

Producers are now pleading for the declaration of a state of emergency, which would allow them to access relief funding through initiatives like the federal government's AgriRecovery program, which would help cover the cost of purchasing and importing feed.

But for it to have impact, Bliss said it needs to happen quickly.

“The problem is, we don't have a lot of time to wait,” she said. “These animals are out of pasture, so you can't just say, ‘OK, guys. You're not going to eat for a couple of weeks until we figure this out.’ So it is really scary.”

Even if a state of emergency is declared, there are complex logistics that would need to be sorted out.

In other times of pasture shortage, northwestern Ontario farmers would typically import their feed from Western Canada, Bliss said.

But with the country's westernmost provinces experiencing their own record-breaking heatwave – resulting in hundreds of deaths in B.C. – the cattle industry there has its own struggles and likely wouldn't be able to provide enough supply to help, Bliss added.

There's even been talk of transporting cattle from the northwest to an area where they could feed until the situation improves at home.

If they can't find a solution fast, Bliss predicts a significant downturn for the industry, which could take years to recover from.

With producers from northwestern Ontario and Canada's western provinces simultaneously supplying an influx of cattle to the market, prices will drop, resulting in low profit for producers.

But once conditions improve and farmers are able to buy back their animals, it will be at an inflated price – possibly three times as much as what they sold them for, Bliss predicts – and that could push some out of the market for good.

“I'm concerned about the whole district, because if we have less cows, it's not good for our sales barn; it's not good for our abattoir; it's not good for feeding people,” Bliss said.

“We can't afford to lose anyone here.”

Before crop failure interrupted what was otherwise shaping up to be a promising season, construction had begun on a brand-new cattle sales barn in Stratton, located in the Rainy River District near the Minnesota border.

The long-awaited project will replace the original sales barn, including the installation of an underground watering system, the incorporation of a new scale, and an improvement of the loading, penning and auction areas.

Of the roughly $1.6-million cost, FedNor chipped in $830,000, Northern Ontario Heritage Fund provided $829,700, and the Rainy River Cattlemen's Association covered the rest.

As of mid-July, construction was on target, with completion projected for the last weekend of August, just in time for the first cattle sale of the fall season, Bliss said.

“We are really excited, but this drought and stress has taken away some of the excitement,” she said. “We should be getting to enjoy this a bit more, and we will.”

In 2020, the Rainy River Cattlemen's Association sold 6,335 head of cattle at nearly $7.3 million, which Bliss said is a little more than average. A new sales barn will enable the group to extend their sales into the shoulder seasons.

As producers acquire more calves, calving season gets stretched into the spring and fall, Bliss noted. But the water lines in the old barn would freeze in colder temperatures, making it unsuitable for off-season activity.

In the new barn, which will have a slightly smaller footprint, water will flow year-round, it will be warmer, and it will have a more efficient configuration.

"So that's why (we put in) underground lines, and we're just making it more comfortable, more safe, and more efficient, not only for our cattle, but for the people that are working and the producers that are selling,” Bliss said.

There might also be a chance to use the barn for additional training, or as a stopover to rest cattle that are travelling across the country, Bliss said.

After undergoing a few repairs, even the old structure, a pole barn erected by community volunteers in 1960, will get a new lease on life when it's repurposed for use as a cattle-sorting facility, she added.

All the work done to date is by local tradespeople who are performing the carpentry, cement and welding work, while volunteers helped install the new scale system in mid-July.

Bliss is touched by the show of support for – and confidence in – the local industry, which she believes is primed for growth if producers can just make it through this drought.

“We've got a challenge ahead of us,” Bliss said. “We will get through this. I'm just concerned about the length it's going to take to rebuild and what's actually going to happen here in the next couple of months."

Lindsay Kelly

About the Author: Lindsay Kelly

Lindsay Kelly is a Sudbury-based reporter who's worked in print and digital media for more than two decades. She joined the Northern Ontario Business newsroom in 2011.
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