Mr. Melnychuk has been using some of his grain harvest, which would otherwise be sold, to help feed the cows over the last few years of dry temperatures. “It’s not that you can go to the neighbor and buy feed for these cows,” Mr. Melnychuk said. “There’s no feed to be found here,” he said, adding, “It gets to the point that you can’t get yourself out of a hole you’re going to be digging.”
Mr. Melnychuk believes he is one of few who have sold their animals to farmers in other provinces — his are headed to a farm in Ontario — rather than sent them straight to a butcher.
“We’ve seen lots of cows hitting the meat market that normally would be in farmers’ fields grazing, and farmers having to make tough decisions,” said Kirk Kiesman, general manager at the Ashern Auction Mart, a livestock auction house in the region. “No one wants to see their genetic potential being turned into meat.”
Harsh supply-and-demand economics mean that farmers who opt to sell their animals — whether to a butcher or to another farmer — are facing a market flush with cows, and therefore, lower prices, said Reynold Bergen, science director at the Beef Cattle Research Council.
Farming is not the most lucrative field to begin with. General farm workers in the Interlake region can earn up to 50,000 Canadian dollars a year, according to government wage data, with over 40 percent of Canadian farmers supplementing their incomes with off-farm work.
“Producers are going to be selling these cattle for bargain basement prices, and they’re going to lose all the equity they’ve spent lifetimes or generations building up,” said Joe Bouchard, who runs a 400-head cow-calf operation. “This has been by far the toughest year we’ve ever had to face.”
The alternative to selling the cows is equally problematic: keeping them and bracing for skyrocketing feed prices, if they are able to secure any.