Packer backlog to remain problem for months

The rate of cattle processing at Western Canada’s two largest processing plants is slowly increasing but a backlog of slaughter-ready cattle is expected to pose a problem for months.

The Cargill plant at High River, Alta., is now running at about 50 percent of its 4,500-5,000 head daily capacity and JBS in Brooks is processing about 1,800 head per day, far below its capacity of about 4,000.

“We are working our way back up in a number of plants,” said Canadian Cattlemen’s Association vice-president Dennis Laycraft during a telephone town hall meeting May 7.

Recent funding announcements from the federal and Alberta governments will help, he said, but further changes to business risk management programs are needed. Since those involve provincial contributions, Laycraft said the industry is turning some of its focus onto provinces and is working with other livestock commodity groups on a campaign, soon to be launched, that is aimed at bolstering support from all Canadians.

Several questions posed by producers during the meeting showed the desire for higher slaughter numbers. However, outbreaks of COVID-19 among processing plant workers has reduced the workforce, at least temporarily, and plants have installed

additional barriers and safety measures that resulted in reduced line speeds.

“From an employee standpoint, when we can’t do it safely, human safe or food safe, we’re just not going to do it,” said Jarrod Gillig, vice-president of operations for Cargill. “The number one asset we have truly is, or are, the folks that work in the plant every day.”

Gillig said he believes Cargill can resume most of its normal capacity in both Canada and the United States “post-COVID”, but given necessary changes to the plants themselves, it will take effort. He anticipates capacity close to previous levels after the pandemic has subsided but that remains to be seen.

The High River plant harvest floor was closed for 21 days and the fabrication floor for 14 days when there weren’t enough people available. It reopened both operations this week.

Gillig said more workers are able to return to work in High River after recovering from illness or COVID-19-related quarantine and daily reports on cases from Alberta Health Services show the number of cases is slowing.

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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