By Will Verboven Contributing Editor
We like to believe that Alberta is God’s country for people and cattle – but that’s usually only during our much-too-short summertime. As you might suspect, winter up here in the Great White North is more like the Star Wars ice planet Hoth. Okay, we get respite once in a while, but cold is cold!
Many might recall that, before there was a climate change crisis, there was the menace of global warming. The latter actually sounded pretty good to many of us living in cold winter climates. Millions of Canadians spend billions every winter flying to places like Arizona and Florida, where the effects of a warmer winter seems quite blissful to those of us tormented by the evil Jack Frost. Sure, we have heard the wisecracks that cold winters give us character and moral fortitude. Oh yeah, and there’s that real gem of wisdom – dry cold isn’t as bad as wet cold.
I just know that pearl of empathy is cold comfort (pun intended) to freezing cattle huddling around at a dry -30° F with a -50° F wind chill factor. That may give Canadian feeder cattle character, but it’s hell on their rate of gain, never mind the cost of just keeping those cattle alive during the winter. Incredibly, in eastern Canada, they put feeder cattle indoors; imagine the cost. Did I mention the wear and tear on every type of machinery, some of which have the annoying habit of seizing up at -30° F. Never mind the long-suffering disposition of employees who bravely go out in such physically unbearable and mind-numbing weather. Well, you get the picture.
Having said all that, there is some benefit to having cattle feedlots in cold climates. Deep freezing temperatures have a debilitating, if not lethal, impact on various nasty parasites, diseases, bacteria and even viruses that plague feedlots in the southern United States. A number of those afflictions cross the border, one being bluetongue, which arrives via a biting midge blown north from the United States by prevailing winds. It can’t survive below-zero weather. Manure freezes quickly, although it tends to liquefy quickly with the slightest of warm weather. I suspect effluent and odor are more easily controlled, being it moves only part of the year. During the rest of the year up here, temperatures tend to be moderate – we figure anything over 25° F is mild. Sure, we get temperatures in the 90s and even very occasionally over 100° F but nothing like down south. Perhaps our summers make up for the deadly winters in the cattle business. Be that as it may, less brutal winters would be most welcome.
It isn’t just the well-being of cattle that would improve with global warming up here; our growing season would be much improved. The problem here with growing crops is frost-free days, soil temperature and heat units. The basis for feeder rations up here is barley, mostly because it’s a short-season cereal that grows well in moderate temperatures. I suspect most Alberta feedlot operators would rather feed grain corn and silage; it’s a better product in many instances. Trainloads of American corn flow into southern Alberta whenever the price is more favorable over local barley. Corn can be grown here, but the yields aren’t quite there due to the lack of frost-free days and heat units that corn requires. To the credit of determined plant geneticists, there are incremental advances in corn varieties that can tolerate our climate, but it’s a slow process. Now, if we saw a 30-day extension of our frost-free growing season, much warmer spring soil conditions and a 20 percent increase in heat units, corn growing would explode in Alberta, particularly within our massive irrigation districts. Only global warming will make that opportunity unfold.
It’s bemusing that whenever we have a drought or other weather calamity up here, climate change fearmongers instantly blame it on global warming. That usually shows an appalling ignorance of our climate reality, but that’s about usual for deluded green left extremists. Yes, we get droughts up here as we have for the past thousands of years; it’s why southern Alberta has one of the largest irrigation regions in the world. Most of Alberta’s commercial agrifood production comes from that area – i.e., it’s now Canada’s largest potato-producing region. The provincial government plans to invest close to a $1 billion in irrigation infrastructure to increase crop production even further. But alas, without a longer growing season and more heat units, production will remain restricted for corn and soybean production.
Interestingly the global warming opportunity here in Alberta would be available to northern U.S. states like Montana. In so many ways, that state, from an agricultural production perspective, is similar to southern Alberta except for one area – a large-scale cattle-feeding industry. Maybe global warming will change that into a new opportunity for Montana.