Canada is now one of the top buyers of U.S. corn as cattle ranchers scour for grain to feed their animals.

Dry conditions zapped as much as 40 per cent of western Canada’s grain output last year, sending prices for barley and other crops to all-time highs and leaving a dearth of feed for the nation’s cattle industry. The squeeze has prompted Canada to make a rare commitment to bring in about 3.2 million metric of tons of corn from its southern neighbor, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

That’s the most in roughly two decades and compares to only 457,000 tons a year ago. Canada’s now one of the biggest purchasers alongside China, Mexico and Japan, and its buying binge is reducing already tight stockpiles of feed grains. 

“If you can’t get a car tire, that’s an inconvenience. If a cow can’t get something to eat, that’s a major problem,’’ said Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Chicago corn futures climbed as much as 0.6 per cent to US$6.1425 a bushel Thursday, the highest level for this time of year since 2013.

Lowe is using about 40 tons of American corn a day to feed his 5,000 cattle in Nanton, Alberta. The recent cold snap prompted him to buy about 15 per cent more corn than he usually needs to sustain his animals this winter. Widespread drought means there are no local alternatives available, and omicron-related disruptions at Alberta’s biggest beef processing plants have left some producers feeding animals for longer, he said. 

“Keeping cattle alive becomes the number one criteria and economics becomes a distant second,’’ Lowe said. 

Earlier this week, Canada also made a rare purchase of European barley as there are limited supplies available in the Prairies, and European malt barley is cheaper and better quality than what is available. The northern nation hasn’t imported significant volumes from the European Union since the 2015-16 season, trade data show.

The extra corn exports are bolstering prices for U.S. farmers, but the demand could slow if Canadian farmers recover from last year's drought and boost yields this year.

“This will probably be a one-off,'' Angie Setzer, cofounder and partner of farm advisory ConsusROI, said by phone.