By Connor Lynch
FINCH — An already rough season for beef farmers was shaping up to get worse. Hay yields in Eastern Ontario have been average at best and often significantly worse. Prices in turn were climbing and many farmers, having already lost significant sums with the COVID-19 beef price collapse earlier this year, can’t afford to put expensive hay into their herds.
Last month’s second cut was not impressive said independent agronomist Gilles Quesnel. “A lot of farmers are talking about not even half (an average yield); a third of a yield on second-cut fields.” Many were pleasantly surprised by close to average yields on first cut, but in some fields, second-cut is “nonexistent.”
Further compounding the problem is a breakout of potato leafhopper, an alfalfa pest that blows north on storm systems and can chew up half of a field’s yield if uncontrolled. The drought that gripped Eastern Ontario is a perfect environment for the pest and many fields suffered as a result, he said.
Finch-area cash crop farmer Scott Fife said that in his area, livestock
farmers knew they were in a “pretty serious situation.” Emergency
forages were getting planted last month, with oats and canola going into
burned-up hay fields and forages going in behind cereals that were
Frontenac County beef farmer and president of the local association Dave Perry said that this year’s hay crop was “terrible,” for the second year in a row. Lots of smaller farmers in his area are planning to get rid of animals they’d hoped to feed over the winter.
“They wanted to build up (their herds) but it’s not feasible under these conditions,” Perry said. With a short supply and acreage increasingly scarce as well as farmers turn to more reliable and easy-to-harvest corn and soybeans, hay prices are sure to shoot up, he said. Not many farmers can afford that.
Glengarry County beef farmer Dick van der Byl said that by mid-July, some sellers were asking as much as $100 for a 4×5 round bale that would normally cost $40 to $50. He was planning to sell cattle down to how many he could feed, based on his hay yields. “But the cow-calf guy, they’re relying on cows to make them money,” he said. And at $100 a bale, they’d be keeping those calves for nothing.
Hastings County beef farmer Paul Kinlin said hay yields were a third of last year’s, which were also poor. Talk in the coffee shop was that emergency rations were being put in the ground, but without rain they’d burn up too. Prices were already climbing to as much as $75 for a 4×5 round bale, and premium alfalfa at close to $100 a bale. “You’ll see the cows go before they buy hay,” Kinlin said.
Why don’t farmers grow more hay? Hay planting numbers have fallen in recent years, going from about 2 million acres across Ontario in 2012 down to 1.7 million acres in 2017. There are a variety of reasons, from the reliability and comparative ease of growing corn and soybeans, to crop insurance, said Perry. “(It’s) easier to get crop insurance for corn or soybeans for crop failure.” He’s taken resolutions to the Beef Farmers of Ontario and National Farmers Union to try and get more hay in production, he said.