CALGARY - Rancher Jon Fox is doing something that he never thought he'd be doing at this time of year -still feeding his 400 head of black Angus cattle near Lloydminster, Sask.
Usually by this time, his animals are out in the pasture, grazing on grass that has greened up after a long winter and moist spring.
But dust bowl conditions and cooler-than-normal temperatures in a huge swath of Alberta and Saskatchewan are threatening producers who may be struggling to find enough feed for their cattle in the months ahead.
Fox has put in an order for feed pellets to help augment his cattle's diet.
"We put some feed out last weekend and got some rain and we've already let a lot of the cattle on to where we normally hay," says Fox, whose Justamere Ranch covers 1,400 hectares.
"If we don't get any rain in the next short while, we're going to have to start feeding all the time and a guy doesn't want to do that."
The problem area runs from Edmonton east to Saskatoon and as far south as Calgary to eastern Alberta and western and central Saskatchewan.
"That's a huge chunk of agricultural area," said Trevor Hadwen, an agri-climate specialist with Agriculture Canada. "We're getting reports of water supply shortages on farms which is fairly early in the season. "
"There's been very little run-off. There's a large area where it's a 1-in-100 year event."
Hadwen said a large region has received only about 40 per cent of normal rainfall for the area and the situation seems to be getting worse.
"There are some areas that are record dry according to Environment Canada climate records. There's a fairly large area that has not received very much rainfall in a number of years and that area has been growing into west-central Saskatchewan and southern Alberta as well," Hadwen added.
"We've seen a pattern like this in 2002. In 2007 and 2008 this area was dry as well."
In 2002 Western Canada experienced the worst drought in 133 years. Hay and grain crops were reduced throughout 75 per cent of Alberta. In Saskatchewan there was a 70 per cent drop in farm income from the previous year.
There were 110,000 tonnes of hay shipped west from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and two 'Say Hay' concerts raised $1 million to help pay for the transport.
"Yeah, I think it's very similar to 2002 for us. The only thing different is we're still pretty good for water in our dug outs," said Fox.
"I think everyone pretty well is in the same boat. I know there are guys even drier than us."
Fox said there is hay still available but it is poor quality and expensive and likely to get more pricey.
The lower temperatures have added to the problems for farmers and ranchers, said Hadwen.
"The producers that we're talking to are having problems not only with water supplies in the dry region but also forage growth. It's just too cold to actually grow the pasture," said Hadwen. "A lot of farmers are still feeding their cattle as if it was winter. The pastures just aren't coming up because there's no water."