A downturn in Canadian livestock herd numbers reflects too many years of increasing costs and dwindling profitability.
The Statistics Canada inventory report released March 5 showed cattle and sheep numbers are down with a minor uptick in the national hog herd.
The number of beef cows fell .8 percent to 3.9 million head as of Jan. 1, following a downward trend that began in 2006.
Fewer calves were available as a result, and heifer retention is minimal. This is the smallest herd since 1992.
The beef herd continues to decline despite recent record high prices in fed and feeder cattle markets.
Alberta and British Columbia saw minor growth, but the other provinces reported fewer cattle.
More than 40 percent of the national beef herd lives in Alberta with more than five million head. Nearly 90 percent of beef herds are found in the four western provinces.
Dairy numbers fell by half a percent to 1.4 million cows and heifers, said the inventory report.
Cattle and calf slaughter declined 2.2 percent to three million head last year, with slaughter numbers down in Eastern Canada and up slightly in the West.
About 2.55 million head were graded last year, said Cindy Delaloye of the Canadian Grading Agency, which reflected higher slaughter prices.
Sheldon Archibald, a purebred and commercial producer from Irma, Alta., is not sure if expansion is possible when the grain sector has paid so well in recent years.
“We are selling breeding bulls and we are selling females back to guys who want to grow their herds, but it is hard in our area because grain has been king for a few years. I don’t know how many of those guys are going to come back to the harder work of raising livestock,” he said.
As well, Canadian farmers are growing older.
“I don’t see a lot of these 65- to 75-year-old men going back to cattle when they have been out for a decade grain farming,” Archibald said at the Calgary Bull Sale March 6.
“Some of these young guys started out with grain farming and had good returns so I don’t see them learning about livestock.”
Profitability is needed to excite people about the beef industry again, said Martin Unrau, outgoing president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
He hopes the introduction of the Western Livestock Price Insurance Program might ease some of the bumps in the cattle cycle.
“There were a number of things in the grain industry that helped stabilize our operation, things like crop insurance where you were carrying a set floor price for the crop you seeded,” he said.
Unrau has 600 commercial cows on his Manitoba ranch, but he also grows crops.
His canola was insured at 80 percent and that coverage can be a godsend in bad years.
“When you can do that, why wouldn’t you tear up the grass?” he said.
“If you had that marginal land and prices started going up, you could turn that into grain land and be guaranteed a floor price on what you produced.”
Cattle price insurance might entice young people if there is less volatility in the industry.
The only positive note in the Jan. 1 report was a 1.1 percent increase in the number of hogs. However, the number of farms reporting hogs declined. There are 7,090 hog farms in Canada, down a half percent from last year.
Farmers reported 1.2 million sows and gilts, up 0.3 percent.
Canada exported five million hogs in 2013, down 12.4 percent from 2012 and more than 50 percent less than the peak in 2007.
Domestic hog slaughter also declined in 2013, down 1.7 percent from 2012 to slightly less than 21 million head.
The sheep sector has also experienced declines with inventories falling one percent to 893,000 head. The number of ewes declined 0.9 percent and replacement lambs fell 2.1 percent. The number of market lambs decreased 0.6 percent from a year ago.
The only provinces to see growth in their flocks were Manitoba with three percent more and Alberta at slightly less than one percent.