Rodeo stock contractors in trouble

Rodeo — it’s sport, it’s entertainment, it’s western culture, agriculture, heritage and recreation.

That span of categories is likely the reason rodeo stock contractors don’t qualify for existing funds and programs designed to ease businesses through the economic throes of COVID-19.

Many are facing severe financial hardship.

Pandemic restrictions coincided with what would have been the peak rodeo season in Canada but virtually all events, about 345 of them, were cancelled. Now contractors have been without income for six months and there’s little hope of further activity until spring 2021 or longer, depending on how the pandemic plays out.

“We fall through the cracks on almost all of the funding existing. There’s not a federal group that covers us. The provincial stuff, we fall through the majority of the cracks there,” said Roy Call of C+ Rodeos, the largest stock contractors in British Columbia.

“We’re not really agriculture, we’re not really tourism, we’re not really sport…. We’re not getting a lot of funding or any help from the government really. And the livestock that we have here is worth a lot of money. They’re animals that we’re going to need when this comes back. When the doors open and we’re allowed to go back to work, we’re going to need the inventory that we have.”

Without any income, however, some of Western Canada’s 14 stock contractors have already made tough decisions about their horses and cattle.

Jennifer Woods of J. Woods Livestock Services used her connections to organize a meeting with provincial and federal government personnel to explain the problem. Woods has worked for years behind the chutes at Calgary Stampede in a livestock welfare role and knows many of the contractors.

“Their loss of income is in the millions and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be another rodeo until April, at least,” said Woods.

“We’ve already had guys selling off stock. We’ve already had guys who can’t afford to feed. So when rodeos start back up, we’re not going to have as much rodeo stock as we did before. You start selling your stock, you’re selling multi-generational genetics.”

No help was forthcoming at the meeting, both Call and Woods agreed, but at least there is a better understanding of the problem at both levels of government. British Columbia might have some useful programs, said Call, but Alberta gave a flat-out “no” to assistance.

Keith Marrington is the former director of rodeo and chuckwagons for the Calgary Stampede, which is the primary stock contractor for several rodeos in Canada and the United States. With about 500 bulls, bucking horses, young stock and saddle horses in the Stampede string, American rodeos will be the main source of revenue until the Canadian scene opens up.

“I think it would be an understatement to say that stock contractors, whether they’re raising horses or bulls or timed event cattle or whatever for the rodeo business, are certainly financially challenged. Our business came to a halt the 20th of March.”

However, rodeo stock contractors are considered essential services in the U.S., so larger operations are able to travel south.

“We were fortunate because we happened to get a few rodeos under our belt south. We went to Fort Worth and San Antonio and Houston before we were shut down,” said Marrington.

The Stampede is in a somewhat different realm than most Canadian contractors, however, and supplying stock to rodeos is the primary source of income for many.

“They’re tapping their cash reserves because, as you well know, animals need to be fed and when there’s no activity, there’s no revenue,” Marrington said.

Call, who has about 100 horses, 75 mature bulls, 30 yearling bulls and 60 pairs of Brahma cows and calves, is looking at a big winter feed bill. Due to massive B.C. forest fires last year that also impacted rodeos and revenue, his business has been almost 18 months without substantial rodeo work.

“Right now we’ve been able to keep our numbers up and we’ve found little ways to scratch out a few dollars here and there. A couple convention rodeos and we had some cancellation fees. We’re just going along to try to get through the year,” said Call.

Support has been strong and welcome from provincial horse councils and from the various rodeo towns where C+ Rodeos provides stock, he added. However, he estimates losses of more than $300,000 in contracts.

Many businesses are suffering as a result of COVID-19, he noted. Those involved in horse racing and chuckwagon racing are in similar situations, where they don’t qualify for pandemic-related programs because they aren’t easily categorized.

“We don’t expect the government to make us whole and we don’t expect the government to buy all kinds of stuff, but (they) have flat out denied our right to work for six months,” said Call.

“We generate a lot of money and we’re trying to stay afloat here… There’s nothing we could have done to mitigate our losses.”

Data compiled by Woods and Marrington, which was provided to government officials at the recent meeting, estimates contractor revenue losses in the multi-millions through cancellation of rodeo events.

They supply 55 Canadian Professional Rodeo Association sanctioned events in Canada, numerous regional association rodeos, high school rodeos, the Professional Bull Riders Association series plus numerous team roping and jackpot events.

The season runs from April to November so pandemic restrictions came at the worst time for the schedule.

Rodeos also provide spin-off revenue for businesses in the host communities, which has been lost.

Next year’s rodeo season is by no means guaranteed, noted Call.

“Things are not opening up here any time soon and we’re not 100 percent sure we’re going back to 100 percent capacity in April. We might be 50 percent capacity in April. But we want to come back strong. We want to come back and be vibrant and be viable.”

Marrington is more hopeful, given the option of U.S. events and the fact that the National Finals Rodeo is still a go this year but will be held in Texas, where COVID-related restrictions are more manageable than in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“That will be some well-needed revenue for some of the guys up here because I’m sure some Canadian horses will get selected to go. That’s one positive note, anyway,” he said.

In Canada, Marrington is hopeful about future activity.

“We’re a resilient group,” he said. “We will survive. This business will come back. Will it look a little different? Probably. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like. It’s probably weeded a few guys out that can’t survive.

“It’s unfortunate but we’re not the only business suffering. We’re not in it alone, but we’ll come out of it together.”

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