He became the face on the TV screen, the voice on the radio, the name in the newspaper in the post-BSE world. It happened sort of by accident, but Brad Wildeman emerged as a leader in the Canadian beef industry after the fateful announcement on May 20, 2003, that BSE had been found in Canada.
At the time, Wildeman was chair of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s foreign trade committee and chair of the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, which had traced the animal from where it was found to its originating herd in Alberta.
He had been on the CCA board for only a couple of years when the border closed, and as president of Pound-Maker AgVentures, a 28,5000-head capacity feedlot and 13-million-litre ethanol facility east of Lanigan, Sask., had enough on his plate.
However, as one of the few representatives from the feedlot sector at the CCA, he felt compelled to step forward.
“The board (of Pound-Maker) gave me the green light and I ended up spending 80 percent of my time away from home,” he recalled. “We were froze up anyway.”
He might have thought differently about his decision had he known just how his life and that of his family would change.
“It’s lucky you don’t know in advance,” he said.
Wildeman, who has just completed a term as head of Canada Beef, said his time in cowboy politics is now over and he has served notice he will retire from Pound-Maker in 2014.
It’s unlikely, however, that his passion will keep him away for long.
Wildeman, 58, came to the beef industry from a grain-farming family that also ran the general store in Esk, Sask., just south of the existing Pound-Maker facilities.
The feedlot was an idea developed by Wildeman’s father and about 40 other locals who wanted to add value to their grain operations.
“It was pretty depressed in farming in ’67, ’68, ’69,” he said. “My memories are of the summers spent fixing up buildings to store this grain we couldn’t sell.”
A 2,500-head feedlot was planned in 1970, and the name Last Mountain Feeders selected. However, when it came time to register, the organizers learned someone else had already reserved it.
Because the intent was to put pounds on cattle, the feedlot became Pound-Maker.
Shareholders could contribute $4,000 per share in cash, grain or labour. Wildeman got his first job at 16 paying off his father’s share in labour.
Later, while growing grain with his father and brother, he worked at the feedlot doing whatever needed to be done: hauling bales, riding pens and running the feed mill.
“Experience was a great teacher and I got to have a love for the cattle business,” he said. “I loved this business and the people that were around it.”
Wildeman’s fate was sealed in 1985.
“I’m out harvesting, September long weekend,” he said. “I could see the feedlot truck coming. The manager said, ‘I’m leaving. I’ve found another job and you’re the first to know.’ ”
Wildeman’s father was board chair at the time and asked him to run the feedlot until a manager could be hired. He had four days of training before the manager left.
“Winter came, spring came, and I said, ‘I got to get home and farm,’ but I think (dad) knew this is what I really wanted to do, and now I’m the longest-serving temporary employee here.”
The farm has been rented since then, and Wildeman got to stay near his family and community. He declined the occasional offer to do something else.
“This place gave me a great job and a great life,” he said.
He, his wife, Cheri, and three children moved to the site in 1986.
The operation’s groundbreaking ethanol business, the first to integrate fuel production and livestock feeding, began in 1990 with its fair share of challenges.
Intrigued with the idea of feeding the byproducts from converting feed wheat to ethanol, the company secured a contract with Mohawk, issued shares to raise the money and built the plant.
“There was no research on feeding,” Wildeman said.
“We didn’t have a clue what it would look like, what it would do.”
The two byproducts, wet distillers grain and thin stillage, couldn’t withstand a lengthy storage. The idea to pump the stillage to the water bowls was developed on site.
Then came the realization that more feed was available than cattle in the feedlot. At that time, Pound-Maker was feeding 8,000 to 10,000 head.
Wildeman said there was no more money to expand, but Saskatchewan Wheat Pool stepped in and became a partner.
Eventually, Husky would buy Mohawk and the pool would sell its shares back to Pound-Maker.
He said the original goal was to use cellulose as the feedstock. Research was saying that would be the norm within a few years.
“Here we are, 20 years later, and people are saying we’re going to be making it out of straw in four or five years,” he said.
Combining the two enterprises is not necessarily something he would do again.
The mentality of the two is different, and ethanol is still “a political football,” he said.
Perhaps the politics of ethanol prepared Wildeman for the politics of the cattle business.
He spent 11 years on the CCA board, including president from 2008 to 2010 and vice-president for the two years before that.
He was president of the Saskatchewan Cattle Feeders Association, chair of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization and is still a director of several agricultural organizations. He sat on the provincial government’s Action Committee on the Rural Economy.
He is a member of the federal beef roundtable and advises the minister of international trade.
He received the Governor General of Canada’s award and was inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2008.
But to do all this, something else had to give, and Wildeman said he regrets that his family saw so little of him during the post-BSE years as he travelled to Ottawa weekly.
“I thought it was important to do it,” he said. “For a feedlot guy at that time, every day was important. I didn’t suffer. My family did.”
In this, his first year without commitments, he said he is trying to figure out “what real people do.”
And while he likes to golf a bit and enjoys a home in Phoenix during the winter, he said he won’t be able to completely let his old life slide away.
What he’d really like to do is strengthen connections between farmers and consumers and help dispel the myths that detractors spread.
“We have a great story to tell,” he said. “If we’re on a quest to show how efficient and business-like we are, we’ve lost the most important fact. We’re in a battle for the heart.”