Cattle herd size continues to shrink

Marcel, left, and Hugh Greaves sort cows on their farm near Deerwood, Man., Feb. 20 as they decide which ones are to go to the yard for calving and which ones can remain in the pasture. Eastern Canada saw a slight increase in the number of cattle last year, at 2.9 million head, while the herd size shrank in Western Canada by 1.7 percent to total 8.2 million.  | Jeannette Greaves photo

The one percent drop in the national cattle herd is part of a general decline that has been happening since 2005

The number of Canadian cattle and sheep shrank in 2020, but there were more hogs compared to the previous year.

Statistics Canada released its livestock 2020 livestock inventory March 1, showing a one percent decline in the national cattle herd, totalling 11.2 million animals, and a two percent decline in sheep numbers, totalling 800,000. Total hog numbers rose by 0.4 percent to 14 million.

Statistics Canada noted the pandemic caused disruption in the livestock sector in the second half of 2020 with temporary closures of processing facilities and changes to the usual markets caused by various public health measures.

“Despite these challenges, from July to December 2020, processing plants adapted their operations to increase processing capacity and reduce existing backlogs. In fact, more cattle, hogs and lambs were slaughtered in the second half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019,” the agency said.

Canadian cattle inventories have seen a general decline since 2005. In fact, StatsCan said they were more than 25 percent below the Jan. 1 peak of 2005.

Eastern Canada saw a slight increase in number of cattle, at 2.9 million head, but the herd size shrank in Western Canada by 1.7 percent to total 8.2 million.

In the usual pattern, Alberta had the highest number of cattle, 39.5 percent of the Canadian total. Saskatchewan was next with 20.4 percent and Ontario third at 14.2 percent.

“The number of cattle farms in Canada has been decreasing since 2004, largely attributable to business consolidations,” StatsCan said.

On a more positive note, cattle producers kept more breeding stock in the second half of 2020 compared to 2019. Beef heifer numbers rose by just over four percent to 545,400 head. Bull numbers were up almost five percent to 210,000.

“This more than offset year-over-year decreases in the number of beef cows (-0.4 percent to 3.5 million head), dairy cows (-0.3 percent to 977,800 head) and dairy heifers for breeding (-2.4 percent to 427,700 head) on Canadian farms.”

Total slaughter of cattle and calves in the second half of 2020 was up 0.6 percent compared to the same period last year, once packers restored their activity from the first half of the year.

Exports were down by two percent in the second half of last year to 303,300 head. StatsCan said export demand was affected by the pandemic. American processing plants faced slaughter backlogs, affecting the cross-border flow of Canadian cattle.

“The July-to-December average price of Canadian feeder and slaughter cattle recovered slightly after sharp declines in the spring,” StatsCan said. “However, prices generally remained lower in the second half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, as processors worked to clear backlogs resulting from temporary closures and slowdowns caused by COVID-19.”

On the hog side, the July to December pig crop, which is piglets alive after weaning, was 14.9 million. It is the highest number since Jan. 1, 2009.

Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba had the largest inventories. Quebec has nearly one-third of the total.

In general there were fewer hog farms, however.

“As of January 1, 7,575 Canadian farms reported hogs, down 0.8 percent from the same date a year earlier. These farms reported 1.2 million sows and gilts, up one percent, while the number of boars remained virtually unchanged year over year,” the agency said.

Hog slaughter capacity was also affected by slaughter plant issues but in the second half of the year, total slaughter reached the highest levels since 2005, rising by 4.2 percent to 11.5 million head.

“Chinese demand for pork meat remained strong in the latter half of 2020, as the country continued to recover from the effects of African swine fever.”

Sheep numbers were the lowest since 1999, declining by two percent compared to last year and totalling 780,200 in 2020.

Ontario and Quebec have more than half the total. The breeding herd declined by one percent, with two percent fewer ewes and 1.3 percent fewer rams.

International exports of sheep and lambs plunged by 58.7 percent compared to last year, to 3,100 head.

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