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Comment: Our cattle inventory numbers seem high

The Census of Agriculture is important. It’s a way of correcting all the estimating we do between censuses about our economy, our industry and even our society. Every five years we take a snapshot to give us a more accurate picture of what is going on in the country so we can refocus and stay on track.

Of course it takes some time for that new picture to come into focus as the number crunchers toil to pull out the trends that are buried in all this data. A case in point is the inventory of cattle and calves that Statistics Canada publishes every January and July. These are merely estimates based on surveys that are then corrected every five years.

So the first real result from the census that has a bearing on the beef industry will show up when the next July inventory report comes out.

Now I don’t pretend to understand all the statistical wizardry that goes into blending census data into the regular flow of statistics but the early indications suggest this July inventory report will be one the industry will be pouring over pretty carefully.

Stats Canada put the total inventory of cattle and calves last July at 13.2 million head. But the census taken on May 10 last year and released on May 24 this year came in at 12.53 million.

Using that 13.2 million number from last July and subtracting all the animals that were marketed in the fall and winter, Stats Canada came up with a total estimated cattle inventory of 12.065 million head in January 2017. But the census indicates we may be lower than that by some little bit.

So you can see why I think this year’s July report is going to draw some interest.

Let’s try beef cows. The number of beef cows on July 1, 2016 was 3.8 million; the census on May 10 put it at 3.7 million, down about 100,000.

The number of beef heifers remains disappointing. In its regular July 2016 report Stats Canada reported 640,800 beef heifers for replacements and 1.207 million for slaughter.

The census puts the number of heifers for beef herd replacement at 674,378, so there is a bit of a bump there. But the number of heifers held for slaughter and feeding came in at 903,741. So our total is down which you would expect if the cow numbers are off by 100,000.

Here are a few more stats:

  • Steers one year and over: 1.646 million last July; 1.573 million on the census.
  • Calves under one year: 4.297 million last July; 4.045 million on the census.

So the gist of this census is we’ll probably correct our inventory numbers down come the fall when the July report is published.

Let’s see what else the census can tell us.

Oh yes, farmers are another year older, with the average age creeping up from 54 to 55 over the past five years. Sadly, the largest segment is still the over-55 category. It would be nice to know what the breakdown would be for the beef industry but unfortunately they still haven’t broken age brackets down by commodities.

This is hardly a new trend, and given the consolidation that continues across the entire agriculture industry I’m not convinced it is an indicator of anything other than the fact that farmers have such an enviable lifestyle they keep on working.

At the same time the number of farmers has declined, again, to 271,935, which must include anybody who ever sold anything from a rabbit to a steer and wheat to spinach at a farm market.

Analyzing the number of farmers, particularly in a commodity like beef cattle, is a bit of a mugs game. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, for example, claims to represent 68,500 beef farms. They might be excited to know that 75,307 farms reported cattle in this census. Of course, this includes vealers, dairy producers and a lot of hobby farms.

I tend to focus on beef cows as an indication that someone is in the business for the long haul. The number of farms reporting breeding cattle declined nearly 12 per cent over five years to 55,956, according to Stats Canada. But as often happens in census reporting I couldn’t see how they arrived at that number.

The inventory table shows 53,837 farms reporting beef cows in 2016, compared to 61,425 in 2011, which is a decline of a little over 12 per cent. Also in 2016, 35,267 reported replacement beef heifers, 14,971 had heifers for slaughter and 47,182 reported bulls a year and over.

A provincial breakdown of farms reporting beef cows when it comes out will be a little more interesting. The breakdown in 2011 was 4,575 in Quebec; 11,567 in Ontario; 6,668 in Manitoba; 14,074 in Saskatchewan; 18,618 in Alberta and 3,839 in B.C. We’ll have to wait a little longer for the 2016 numbers.

Whatever the true number is, it will be down, which will come as no surprise to anyone involved in beef production.

More details will be coming out of the census over the coming weeks but none is likely to have as big an impact on this industry as the correction in our inventory numbers.

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Gren Winslow is editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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