Corn-fed program expands beef market share

The Ontario program plans to go national as a way to attract more cattle and meet increasing international demand

LONDON, Ont. — The Ontario Corn Fed beef program is no longer regional or even national in scale. Sales to Japan, the Middle East and the United States are giving the program a global impact.

The Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association launched the brand in 2001 with just 25 cattle per week. However, almost 300,000 Ontario Corn Fed animals were sold last year, including to Japan’s Kinsho Markets, which used the brand to replace beef from New Zealand.

John Baker, who looks after brand and business development for the association, said sales volume has increased 70 percent since the 40-store Japanese chain launched the program in May.

Jim Clark, general manager of the OCFA, said Ontario Corn Fed beef meets 20 percent of the chain’s beef requirements, but the association has set its sights on 50 percent.

“The Middle East has also been a good market and continues to grow,” Clark said.

“Currently, 75 percent of the product going in the Middle East has been from processors in Ontario.… At times we don’t have enough product to meet the demand.”

Sixty percent of cattle finished in Ontario are marketed through the Ontario Corn Fed program, which is sold domestically through Loblaw Companies Ltd. and independent retailers in Ontario.

The Jan. 15 appearance of a Loblaws’ senior vice-president at this year’s Beef Industry Convention, following previous invitations, may be an indication of the brand’s growing influence.

“We’ve been into it (Ontario corn fed) for about five years now. We’re looking to the future … We’re going to grow it and grow it,” Sal Baio said.

“It’s among the finest beef in the world.… It’s consistent.”

Baio said the elimination of country-of-origin labelling in the U.S. has changed trade dynamics.

“With the COOL program going, more and more (cattle and beef) will be going south,” he said.

More cattle exports to the U.S. could result in less beef for the corn fed program, although Clark said he would never suggest Ontario beef producers limit their marketing avenues.

A second brand, Canada Corn Fed, has expanded the program’s reach. And Marie-Claude Mainville, president of Quebec’s beef feeders association, said most of the province’s feedlot operators would need to make only minor changes, if any, to meet the program’s requirements.

The new market would be welcome. Quebec’s finished cattle exports fell to 90,000 last year from 200,000 in 2008.

Mainville said the decline has been caused by reduced government support and regulations that limit the size of feedlots.

Beef Farmers of Ontario have also come on board with an ambitious goal to increase the province’s cow herd by 100,000, head, according to president Bob Gordanier.

The plan supports the expansion of the cow-calf industry throughout the province, including northern Ontario, where land is less expensive.

“There are challenges, but when I go up there and see the potential, I wish I was 25 or 35 years younger,” Gordanier said.

“The land base in the north is grass and more grass.”

The Ontario Corn Fed and Canada Corn Fed programs rely heavily on calves and backgrounders from Western Canada, making it a national effort, Clark said.

Almost 30 percent of Canada’s cattle are now processed in Ontario, and most of them are program animals.

Gordanier said the initiative has benefited the entire beef production industry by opening new export markets and displacing imports, especially in highly competitive Toronto market.

“It’s helped us hold our market share in tough times and it’s improved our basis,” Gordanier said, referring to the sharp decline in beef prices in recent months.

Shawn Wilson, who works for Zoetis but was formerly a buyer for Tyson in Alberta, said most U.S. cattle feeders have been losing money for the sat 12 months. It’s only been since September that the problem began to be felt in Canada.

“You guys (with Ontario Corn Fed) have bought quite a few cattle,” he said.

“You have done a good job placing and selling cattle.”

In both the past two years, close to 300,000 cattle have been marketed through the Ontario Corn Fed program.

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