It’s only winter, but already Western Canadian farmers, livestock producers — and governments — are taking steps to deal with what is already shaping up to be a difficult drought season next summer.On Monday, the Alberta government awarded a $350,000 contract to Calgary-based WaterSMART Solutions to model ways of maximizing Alberta’s water supply in a bid to proactively manage future water shortages, especially in southern regions that were hard hit by drought in 2023.Compounding the situation, El Niño is producing a dry winter across Canada and more than 70% of the country is experiencing drought conditions.Alberta in turn relies on melting snow and rain for most of its water. This winter, snowfall is already well-below average with multiple rivers and reservoirs at or near record lows and well-below capacity. The Oldman River Reservoir was at just 28% of capacity as of January 15, compared to a range of 62% to 79% at this time of year. In a news release, the government said there is a high risk that drought conditions could worsen this year, and WaterSMART will help it prepare for what seems to be all but inevitable..The Canadian cattle industry contributes $51.5 billion in the production of goods and services, $21.8 billion to the Canadian GDP and $11.7 billion in labour income..“We are taking action to make sure Alberta is fully prepared to navigate drought in 2024. The work we are announcing will help the province conduct advanced drought modelling and explore innovative ways to maximize Alberta’s water supply,” said Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz.“This is all a key part of our efforts to continue our work to help conserve and manage water now and be prepared for uncertain conditions in the future.”There are currently 51 water shortage advisories in place in Alberta. According to the most recent assessment by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 70% of Canada was classified as abnormally dry or in moderate to exceptional drought, including 81% of the country’s agricultural landscape.Although water and irrigation issues primarily impact grain farmers, they are also of outsized importance to cattle and livestock producers..The Alberta initiatives come as the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) on Monday released its national beef sustainability report. On a conference call with media and industry representatives, study authors noted the impact of water shortages — both in terms of feed costs as well as providing adequate supplies for the animals themselves.Not only does drought have an impact on the price of hay but farmers are often faced with the prospect of selling animals and reducing herds in order to properly care for them.“The drought is definitely a concern,” said Dr. Tim McAllister, a Lethbridge-based researcher with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.“For southern Alberta in terms of irrigation, so many of our reservoirs are at a very low level right now so snowpack in the mountains is really important for this year. There's work going on in terms of improving the efficiency of the irrigation system and but you can only do so much if the moisture is not there. Drought is going to be inevitable. If it doesn't rain or there's no moisture, it's pretty hard to create it.”Added Brenna Grant, executive director of Canfax market research with the Canadian Cattle Association: “This has resulted in some producers, reducing their herd numbers and that has implications on economies of scale and profitability. For others, it means that they are as Dr. McAllister mentioned, paying higher prices for feed.”According to the CRSB, the Canadian cattle industry contributes $51.5 billion in the production of goods and services, $21.8 billion to the Canadian GDP and $11.7 billion in labour income.