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Drought cuts Canada's wheat reserves, may reduce cattle herds

Canada's wheat belt has been devastated by drought. With most of the prairie harvest in, Statistics Canada estimates this year's production is down 76 percent. This means over a billion dollars in lost income to Canada's western farmers.

It's the worst depletion of moisture in 65 years - drier than the dust bowl 1930s. The line of drought roughly follows some of the most fertile land of the prairies - from southern Alberta to north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, then into the southwest corner of Manitoba. Southern Alberta bore the brunt of the scorching summer.

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''We were hit pretty hard,'' is how Ike Lanier quietly sums up the loss of nearly 80 percent of his crop. Mr. Lanier farms 3,000 acres near Lethbridge and he suspects that he, like many other farmers, will be able to recover most of his input costs through crop insurance.

But this is one year he will not be able to expand his farm or put money in the bank. What the drought didn't claim, the worst plague of grasshoppers in 10 years did.

Lanier is an established farmer who can weather this year's setbacks. For others, who bought land only in the last few years, high prices and the loss of this year's crop could spell the end of operations.

Lanier, who watched an 8-inch wheat crop shrivel under desert-like conditions , takes some comfort in history. It had been decades since the rich soil here cracked in the baking sun, and Lanier prefers to recount the many good crops the land has given him. Already moisture is starting to accumulate from widespread rain in the area and he says, ''I can afford to be a little optimistic.''

Those relying on irrigation farming in southern Alberta took off a reasonable crop. In some parts of Saskatchewan the drought did not hit so severely.

Bob Partridge, who farms 1,200 acres near the North Dakota border, claims the average yield is about 22 bushels an acre, ''which isn't bad for a dry, hot year.'' A good year may bring twice as many bushels to an acre.

Less than 100 miles to the north, Partridge notes, farmers will get 10 to 12 bushels to the acre, ''and much of the province is like that.'' Partridge adds that record heat burned cattle pastures brown.

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Cattlemen are left reeling by the drought, and the provincial governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta have moved quickly to avoid a major sell-off of the cattle herds. In Alberta, for instance, the government provided a grant of up to $48 per animal to help with extra feed costs. But the Alberta Cattle Commission estimates the grants will cover less than half the losses cattle producers will incur.

There is no indication from the new Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa as to how the Tories plan to address the plight of the southern prairies. One thing is certain, however, - come winter, cattlemen will be paying a much higher price for hay and feed barley, a burden many will be looking to the federal government to relieve.

Canada is a major exporter of grain. According to Dwayne Couldwell, a grain analyst with Alberta's Department of Agriculture, the drought will not leave the country's domestic supply in a vulnerable position but it will mean ''exporting a lot less.''

In terms of barley, Mr. Couldwell doesn't see any domestic shortage developing, but he predicts exports will decline about one-third to 3.6 million tons.

If there is a positive side to the drought, it is that it has prompted the Alberta provincial government to announce a $200 million dam for southern Alberta. Premier Peter Lougheed says, ''To allow the spring runoff to go through our province without capturing and storing it over the balance of the year is just not sound water management.''

Most farmers say there is not much point in dwelling on this year's loss. Instead they hope that next year ''things will be better.''

Some rely on grim humor to ease the heartaches: ''I saw crows flying backwards to keep the dust out of their eyes.... The rabbits have to pack a lunch when they cross our pasture.''

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