Cows will pull you through only if they’re still there

Cows will pull you through only if they’re still there

A major reduction in the Canadian domestic beef cow herd, a likely outcome of this drought, will have long, widespread and damaging effects on several fronts.

It’s imperative that government take all measures possible to help producers minimize breeding herd losses.

The total number of beef cows in Canada has been shrinking for the past 15 years. The Statistics Canada January estimate was 3.5 million, plus 545,000 retained heifers.

Considering the current dire situation of drought-induced feed shortages, an even larger reduction in cow numbers is virtually certain.

Combine sliding cow numbers with higher slaughter rates than usual, even prior to the current drought, and the future will see a smaller industry.

Drought is on everyone’s mind, but the causes of herd reduction go beyond that.

Many mixed farms keep cattle as a buffer for their grain operations. Many small and mid-sized cattle herds are supported by seasonal field grazing, screenings and off-grade grain, as well as ready access to straw and the ability to offer winter work to farm staff or family members. Grain farm consolidation and rising land prices have played a role in reducing the number of producers who don’t specialize in grain or livestock.

But with fewer cattle, those advantages steadily erode.

No lesser problem is the potential reduction in people willing to remain in the cow-calf business. The average age of ranchers in Canada has been rising with each passing year and now 56 percent are over the age of 55. Five percent of specialized beef producers reared 30 percent of all the calves in the country, so it doesn’t take many of those exits to result in many fewer cattle being raised.

Unlike grain farming, scaling up beef operations isn’t a matter of getting bigger and better tools and securing more ground. The experience needed in livestock operations is harder to find.

Animal productivity through improved genetics, animal health and efficiency is squeezing a few more dollars in the margins, but not so much that it makes the business more attractive to new entrants. And like grain farming, there are virtually no new opportunities to enter the ranching business due to the high costs involved in land purchase, infrastructure, stock and feed.

Grain and oilseed producers might easily forget that much of their crop is fed or processed domestically. Whether directly or from byproducts, those sales are dollars that land in every farmer’s pocket.

Canada has many natural advantages for cattle production, including abundant rangeland unsuited for seasonal cropping. The Prairies have long been home to sustainable cattle production and have the added advantage of proximity to the giant American market.

Federal and provincial governments must step up to ensure more producers aren’t lost due to this drought. Access to AgriRecovery programming is required. There must be assurance that salvaged crops can be released from delivery contracts, making poor quality crop available to cattle producers.

The government should also encourage rail operators to provide timely delivery for needed feed grains. And expansion of the Livestock Tax Deferral Program to five years for all cattle classes and regions goes without saying. Implement the overdue increase to AgriStability coverage from 70 to 80 percent. Recent government announcements indicate the message about dire conditions is being heard.

This drought will not last but the damage to Canadian agriculture due to producer exits will.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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