It’s no secret that Alberta’s cattle herd has shrunk dramatically in the past decade.
However, a close look at each county provides a clearer picture of which parts of the province have been most affected.
The biggest reductions in cattle are in the Highway 2 corridor between Edmonton and Calgary in the black soil zone, said Barry Yaremcio, a forage and beef specialist with Alberta Agriculture who helped develop and analyze the census maps.
The 2001 census reported 93,584 cattle in Ponoka County, compared to 42,237 in the 2011 census. A little farther south, the number of cattle in Red Deer County dropped from 77,022 in 2001 to 47,245 in 2011.
“That to me is the effect of wheat and canola,” said Yaremcio.
“If they can make $300 per acre net for wheat and canola, it’s pretty hard to get that kind of cash flow from cows.”
Drought, BSE, older farmers retiring, a labour shortage and recently high grain prices have helped de-crease the number of cows on farms, the number of producers raising cattle and herd size.
Alberta had 1.9 million head of cattle on 28,718 farms in 2001 but had peaked at 2.1 million in 2005 after BSE closed trade borders and re-duced cattle prices.
By 2011, it had dropped to 1.5 million on slightly more than 18,000 farms. The average number of cows in a herd also increased from 68 to 82 cows.
Yaremcio said he was surprised by the steady increase in the number of cows in southeastern Alberta. It dropped slightly from 21,762 to 19,754 in Forty Mile County from 2001 to 2011, but next door in Cypress County the number increased slightly from 54,372 to 55,331.
“With good moisture conditions over recent years and pastures able to support more cattle, the guys have increased their stocking rate,” he said.
Alberta Beef Producers chair Greg Bowie said droughts in 2002, 2003 and 2009 took their toll on central Alberta cattle producers.
“The severe drought compared to normal was quite dramatic,” said Bowie.
He said many smaller producers decided the hardships of raising cattle were no longer worth it, which is reflected in increased herd sizes.
He also credits wetter than normal conditions in normally dry southeastern Alberta for increasing cattle numbers.
One of the biggest drops in cattle numbers has been in the grey wooded zone of Alberta’s Peace River region, where cattle numbers dropped 36 percent from 187,722 in 2006 to 129,050 in 2011.
The number of producers dropped from 2,643 in 2006 to 1,896 in 2011.
The average herd size dropped from 71 cows to 63 cows.
Bowie said rancher retirement and herd dispersal probably had the biggest impact on overall cattle numbers.
No younger farmers were willing to take on the animals, and they were sold.
Yaremcio said he wanted to gather the information in an easy to use format to help the feed and farm supply industry see exactly where the cattle are in the province.
The numbers may prompt them to open a new branch or modify their structure in areas where there are cows but no feed and farm supply competition.