Last summer, Manitoba’s agriculture minister made a comment that surprised many cattle industry leaders.
Ralph Eichler, during a field tour north of Brandon, said Manitoba’s beef industry should expand the herd and aim for a target of 750,000 beef cows.
The number was ambitious, as Manitoba had about 440,000 beef cows at the time.
It’s been more than a year since Eichler’s remark but a plan for expansion is moving forward, said Manitoba Beef Producers president Ben Fox.
“It’s a longer process than probably anybody wants to admit,” said Fox, a rancher from the Dauphin region. “The progress to date has been slow. But we’re still on the building path to getting numbers increased.”
The government provided official support for herd expansion in April, when it unveiled the 2017 provincial budget.
The budget press release mentioned “increased investment in agriculture, including funding for an enhanced Livestock Growth Strategy.”
The specifics around the growth strategy remain unclear, but the MBP hopes to nail down the details in 2018.
“We’re putting together a game plan…. to outline very specific and detailed points that need to be accommodated to grow the herd,” Fox said.
“Hopefully by our next AGM, in February, it will be ready to present to the provincial government.”
The MBP hinted at what’s needed in a press release this spring. The organization said cattle producers require better risk management tools, a regulatory environment that encourages growth, sound policies for Crown lands and improved water management strategies that reduce risk.
Ranchers also need money, Fox said.
“It’s not just government regulations. But the lenders… need to increase availability of credit to producers.”
While government, banks and credit unions have a role, producers are ultimately responsible for building the industry, Fox said.
That requires a change of mindset, where people in the trade feel more hopeful and optimistic. Making that psychological switch isn’t easy because many producers suffered through a decade or more of low prices, flooding and a feeling that the previous NDP government neglected and disrespected the livestock trade.
“Producers need to feel engaged. And made to feel that they are wanted… that their production is wanted in the province,” Fox said.
Eichler’s comments last summer indicated the new Conservative government supports the industry, but some producers remain skeptical about expansion.
At a meeting in Arborg last fall, several ranchers said it doesn’t make sense to build Manitoba’s herd because it will depress cattle prices.
Fox doesn’t buy that argument.
“The reality (is) we (Manitoba) are not that big a player,” he said.
“It’s not like we’re going to flood the market with cattle.”
Other ranchers are more positive about expansion and are growing their herds. Fox said the tone of conversations between beef producers is shifting from negative to positive.
“I think the overall outlook is positive and producers are finally getting out of the humdrum, gray cloud,” he said.“I’ve heard more stories (recently) of people growing bigger than I have of people retiring and getting out of the business.”