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Managing herds in drought conditions

“Cattle operations are vulnerable to drought conditions,” says Ann Boyda, provincial livestock market analyst with the Alberta government. “Periods of drought often result in a downsizing of the cattle herd. High slaughter rates are the result of cattle (especially heifers) being pushed into feedlots and not being retained for rebuilding the herd. The practice of selling less-productive animals first generally targets cows that aren’t pregnant or are late-calving and bulls that are inferior.”

Cattle slaughter in western Canada has been higher over the last few years as compared to the historic average (2000 to 2023). The 2023 total cattle slaughter for West Canada (2.56 million head) dropped by 4.3% from 2022, however remained 7.64% higher than the historic average. 2021 witnessed a 6.8% increase in cattle slaughter numbers over 2020 and an 11.7% increase over the historic average.

Female slaughter rates (as a percent of total slaughter) increased from 47.9% in 2022 to 49.6% in 2023 and were higher than the historic average rates (2000 to 2023) for the second and third quarters, indicating periods of contraction. The fourth quarter 2023 showed signs of stabilizing. As of March 9, 2024, the year-to-date female slaughter rate of 498,654 head is 49.7%, however there were fewer cows slaughtered as compared to last year, 79,628 head versus 86,981 head (an 8% drop). Heifer slaughter increased by 2% over the year-to-date of the previous year.

In 2023 and 2022, there was evidence of higher rates of heifer placement in feedlots based on the percentage of heifer placements to total cattle feedlot placements. The peak heifer placement rate of 53.5% occurred in June of 2023, followed by another high fall placement rate of 47% in September.

“Drought conditions typically impact the cow-calf sector greater. Calves born in spring can remain relatively unaffected by early drought but dry conditions in summer and fall generally result in early weaning as a means of dealing with feed and water shortages,” explains Boyda.

According to supply and disposition data reported by Statistics Canada, the number of calves born in Alberta in 2022 (1,773,000 head) remained relatively constant with that of 2021, however 2023 reported a 4.0% decrease to 1,701,400 calves. This will lead to a decline in calves available for placement into feedlots for 2024.

“A large part of herd liquidation is attributed to drought or dryness. However, it is important to note that financial returns also play a role in downsizing decisions. Record high cattle prices in 2023 eased some of the difficult decision making. Consecutive years of drought conditions in the U.S. was also a factor. Tight U.S. supplies sustained pressure on prices.”

Drier conditions were evident in many parts of Alberta, especially in the southern areas. The Government of Alberta provides updates with respect to snowpack, precipitation, river levels and other key data (Drought-Current conditions).

“It is advisable for farmers to consider early planning to combat weather adversity. Consideration may be given to monitoring body condition of animals, feed budgets and forage availability, management of on-farm water resources, assessment of pastures, and use of feed analyses in costing and balancing rations,” says Boyda.

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