Livestock optimistic on aid

Cattle industry concerns over reduced slaughter capacity and the problems it causes are thought to be rising to the top of the federal government’s list of sectors needing help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No announcements had been made as of April 27 but Canadian Cattlemen’s Association executive vice-president Dennis Laycraft said the message may be getting across.

“We’re now into a lot more advanced discussions on the proposals, getting down to details and numbers, so it suggests to me that we are getting close,” Laycraft said April 23.

The CCA and National Cattle Feeders Association have suggested five measures that could assist the industry if funding is made available, he said.

“If we get these measures together and give the industry the tools that it needs, we actually believe … it’ll cost less money to the federal government than if they don’t do anything quickly.”

Laycraft said the CCA estimates cattle industry losses of about $500 million if the government does not act.

Government financial assistance to make livestock price insurance premiums more affordable to all, and also make them available to Atlantic provinces is one request, as is a set-aside program to slow cattle progress through the production chain and an advance payments program.

Concerns became more intense after Cargill temporarily closed its High River, Alta., plant last week. More than 660 of its workers, as of April 24, have become ill with COVID-19. The plant slaughters about 40 percent of Canadian cattle when fully operational.

Laycraft said the CCA is in daily contact with the Cargill plant, which is taking extensive measures to improve worker safety within the plant and is devising ways to further protect them when travelling to and from work.

The JBS plant in Brooks, Alta., the other large federally inspected plant in the province, has had more than 200 workers infected with the virus and cases have also risen in that community. The plant has halved its capacity, running one shift to process 1,500 to 2,000 cattle daily.

“They’re still struggling with the number of employees that they’re able to get in every day but they do intend to continue with processing, having the harvest and the fab line, and the amount they are processing each day is kind of dependent on their workforce that is available,” Laycraft said.

Processing plant closures and slowdowns across the United States have exacerbated the problem. Tyson’s Pasco, Wash., plant, a destination in the past for some Canadian cattle, is closed now but expected to reopen once all employees have been tested for the virus.

Canfax reported last week that prices for western Canadian fed cattle have dropped by $36 per hundredweight in the last three weeks, averaging slightly more than $112 per cwt. That is the lowest point since October 2012.

Fed kill levels are also at some of the lowest levels in history, the agency said. In Western Canada last week, fewer than 15,000 head were processed compared to about 40,000 under normal conditions.

Resulting shortages have forced some retailers to source beef from the United States. Among them is Sobeys, which apologized for that need, said Laycraft, and said it would return to a full line of Canadian product when that becomes possible.

“What we know today is supply will be down for a while,” said Canada Beef president Michael Young. “Prices will likely go up and purchase orders for Canadian beef continue to be strong in the retail sector.”

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