BSE, XL Foods recall were major challenges for CCA president

Martin Unrau welcomes recent trade agreements that will expand market access

Martin Unrau has helped a cow deliver twins on his Manitoba farm one day and then discussed country-of-origin labelling with prime minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa the next.


It is pretty heady stuff for a Manitoba farm boy who got involved in beef politics because of the BSE crisis in 2003. 


Unrau has been president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association for two years . He turned the reins over to Dave Solverson during the organization’s annual meeting in Ottawa March 4-7.


Unrau and his family have a herd of 600 Angus-Simmental cross commercial cows near MacGregor. One brother has an 11,000 head feedlot and another runs an auction market. 


“My heart is in the cow-calf business,” he said.


He became politically involved when he walked into a crowded community hall where 700 scared beef producers were talking about BSE. 


“The first time I ever spoke at a meeting was in the fall of ’03,” he said.


“My operation was in jeopardy because we had just invested in equipment and cows.”


He told the meeting that the solution was to either kill the cows or open the borders. 


He received a standing ovation and eventually decided to run as a delegate with the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, eventually be-coming president.


“Here was a country guy who never got involved in anything, then bang, I was right in the middle of this thing,” he said.


Times got tougher before they got better, but he and wife Roxie decided to stick with the cattle, even though the cows were worth next to nothing for years after the BSE discovery in Canada. 


In 2005, he attended his first CCA meeting in Kamloops, B.C. It was the first time he had ever been on an airplane. The meeting was an eye opener to see the many tendrils of the organization and learn how each was working to salvage the industry.


As he advanced through the CCA executive, he realized he had taken on the biggest volunteer job of his life. As president, he has travelled the globe.


It was not always easy. 


For Unrau, the biggest crisis was the closure of XL Foods beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta., after E. coli contamination forced Canada’s largest beef recall.


“The thing got out of control and we couldn’t really do anything to mitigate the negative stuff around it,” he said. 


“Truly, we haven’t really assessed it thoroughly so we know some of the things that have to be done, but at the end of the day it was something that was very negative for our industry.” 


The other crisis is COOL in the United States, which is driving down the value of Canadian cattle. A 1,400 pound animal is now discounted $150-$300 below the U.S. price.


However, there is good news on the horizon with numerous trade agreements in the works. Having access to a range of markets is important, he said, because it adds value to a wider range cuts and offal products. 


He said he has enjoyed his more than 10 years of service, but now wants to spend more time on the ranch, working with his four children, aged 23 to 29, and getting to know his four grandchildren.


“It is tremendously rewarding,” he said. “Some of the things I’ve done, and some of the people I have met, are going to shape the rest of my life.”


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