Stabilizing Ontario’s beef cattle industry

Five opinions heard at the Grey-Bruce Beef Day

If every producer put into practice two or three new ideas from the conferences they attend, the entire industry could benefit, according to Dr. Tammi Ribey.

“The beef industry is us — everyone can do something,” she said. “If we all do a little something, collectively it should help.” Ribey is a veterinarian with a practice in Paisley, Ont., who owns a purebred Angus seedstock business and is chair of the 2018 Canadian Beef Industry Conference.

She participated in a panel about the quest for greater stability in the province’s beef industry during Grey-Bruce Farmers’ Week in Elmwood.

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Five panelists weighed in with their views about what producers can do to address a shrinking provincial herd, wildly fluctuating prices, a shaky trade environment, changing consumer preferences, aging farmers, the high price of land and many other challenges that the Ontario beef industry faces. The panel was facilitated by Christoph Wand, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ livestock sustainability specialist.

There was a general agreement that better co-ordination and information feedback in the value chain would go a long way to increasing the quality of the product, finding efficiencies and meeting consumer demand.

Mike Buis said that, because he has a vertically integrated operation from cow-calf to retail, he can join all the steps together and see where he can make improvements. Buis has a 300-head commercial herd near Chatham, Ont., that supplies his own on-farm store and several other markets. He also farms 750 acres of crop land.

“We set prices on an annual basis and don’t follow the ups and downs of the markets,” he said. “We also cut significant feed costs out of the system by grazing cover crops and using alternative feeds.” He added that he’s getting even more feed efficiencies by working with cash-cropping neighbours to graze their harvested fields.

Buis also said that the aging industry needs to engage young people and attributed his success to having his daughter in the business. She questions the way it operates, asks if things can be done better, and helps make changes.

Mike von Massow, who’s an associate professor at the University of Guelph, said the shifting sands of consumer demand mean producers have to be willing to think differently about how they operate.

“You need to think more as a manager, not a producer and to be more flexible in order to meet what the market is demanding,” he said, noting that, while it wouldn’t be easy, formalizing relationships up and down the supply chain would help.

Buis agreed, adding that producers would do well to remember that they’re producing someone’s meal, not just raising cattle.

Jarius Maus, a fourth-generation beef producer who markets 3,000 to 4,000 cattle a year from his feedlot just west of Elmwood, also grows corn, soybeans and wheat, and has a grain elevator business.

He believes it helps to educate the public about how beef farms work, and illustrated the point with a story about how he opened his operation to the public. He participated as one of five farms on a tour the Walkerton Kinsmen organized as a fundraiser.

“We had 250 people go through from all walks of life — from guys who know more about feedlot operations than I do to folks who’d never set foot on a farm,” he said.

Everyone asked lots of pointed questions, but one woman stood out. She asked a lot of questions and took pictures of every detail of the operation from where the sick cattle were kept to where we stored the cattle prods (he doesn’t own any). Maus obliged by answering all her questions, and took her through everything.

A week later, when a package arrived from her, he received a pleasant surprise. The woman had put together a collage of the photos she’d taken and included a thank-you note for showing her “the truth.”

Accommodating public demand for information is the goal of a new branding program developed by the Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO).

“Consumers need to feel good about what they’re eating,” said Joe Hill, a producer and BFO vice-president. He farms 800 acres of cash crop in addition to a feedlot operation in Centre Wellington.

“We want to get consumers the attributes that they want and to make sure they know it’s an Ontario beef product,” he said.

Building consumer loyalty is one way to address the wild swings in prices, he said. He noted that in the past year, fed cattle prices in Ontario were below average. More cattle are coming in from the west and the higher costs of production mean Ontario beef producers are taking a real hit.

He also said that 40 per cent of the beef consumed in Ontario is imported, and that “we’ll never be the lowest-cost producer.” Which is why marketing has to be done differently than in the past.

The way the cattle are produced needs to be done differently, too. Dr. Ribey said that, in her own operation, she’s constantly looking for ways to “get better,” including improving genetics for easier calving and less disease, better weaning weights and finding feed efficiencies.

She agreed with others on the panel about producing the meat that consumers want, and said that in her practice she sees all kinds of different production methods.

“Producers need to find places or niches in the market to fit in, and perfect their product for the right consumer at the right time,” she said.

Dr. Ribey has identified land prices as a huge challenge, saying that some of the farmers she serves have 40 or 50 cattle and have to work off-farm to make ends meet because they can’t afford to buy more land so they can increase their herd.

The BFO is starting to address this situation by offering a new program called Beef North, Hill said. Willing producers are being encouraged to explore options for buying farms in northern Ontario where the land is cheaper and well suited to growing forages and raising beef cattle. BFO has several resources to help producers along the way.

In wrapping up the panel discussion, everyone agreed that changes have to be made to maintain Ontario’s beef industry, which suffered a one-third decrease in the provincial herd between 2005 and 2015.

“We’ve got to do things differently,” said Hill. “Otherwise, in 10 years we won’t be talking about stability, but about survival.”

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