Fall is always a busy time for beef producers, as they manage through the fall calf run and make herd management and culling decisions. Producers consider a number of factors, including the outcomes of the harvest on their own farm, the farms they buy feed from, and if there is enough feed overall to winter their cows. Weather has been a factor right across the country this year, with unseasonably cool and wet weather throughout the West and extreme heat and humidity in the East. While the wet weather slowed harvest in some parts of Alberta, it’s unlikely feed supply will be an issue this winter as high moisture conditions may see a lot of wheat and barley being downgraded to feed quality. In addition, silage cereal crops were decent and hay and pasture conditions are in fair to good shape. In contrast, in parts of Ontario, extreme dry conditions nearing drought has reduced the corn crop to between half to two-thirds of a normal crop, and hay is an issue for some, depending on the area. Management decisions are being made.
In Alberta, the main factor influencing these decisions will be the market prices. According to Canfax, Alberta fed cattle averaged $142/cwt in August, down 22.5 per cent from August 2015. In Ontario, the combination of uncertain markets and feed issues are likely what’s behind some producers’ decisions to already move cows to market, including some with calves still on them to split and sell separately.
Over the last couple of years, the U.S. herd has expanded with strong prices and good weather conditions, while the Canadian herd has remained stable. Given the large price correction, and an outlook that generally has a weaker market tone, expansion has slowed in the U.S. Meanwhile in Canada, herd growth appears to be limited over the next couple of years as we are generally in a down-trending market with growing North American supplies. Calf prices have fallen over $1/lb. in the past year, but Canadian calf prices remain historically strong. With a Canadian dollar under 80 cents, and an abundance of feed supplies, cow-calf producers should remain profitable.
Cattle prices have peaked and are being pressured down by larger production. Domestic beef production was up nine per cent from January through August. Feeder prices are being supported by lower feed grain prices this fall with a record 15-billion-bushel corn crop anticipated in the U.S. Alberta 500- to 600-lb. steer calf price has dropped to trade around the five-year average of $200/cwt, but remain above the 10-year average of $160/cwt.
With fall run and culling decisions comes the need to transport livestock. The efficacy of Canada’s livestock regulations was challenged recently in the context of the trial of an anti-animal agriculture activist charged with criminal mischief in Ontario. With court dates for the trail set for October and November, the issue of Canada’s regulations and whether they need upgrading will no doubt continue.
The chief concern for the Canadian cattle industry is activist language highlighting the length of time cattle are permitted to be in transit. Current regulations state cattle must be fed, watered and rested for at least five hours after 48 hours in transit, unless they can reach their final destination within 52 hours. These regulations take into account factors such as cattle’s unique nutritional/water needs and the impact of stress due to loading and unloading.
In Canada, research shows that the time for long-haul trips averaged 16 hours in length, with over 95 per cent of cattle spending less than 30 hours in transit. Further, over 99.9 per cent of cattle reached their destination safely.
Although there are often calls for tighter regulation of livestock transport, it is essential that any regulatory change be based on scientific evidence so that the imposed change will actually improve animal welfare.
Calls to update Canada’s livestock transportation regulations have been discussed for over a decade, and industry is aware that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will likely be proposing changes to the regulations in the near future. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) has emphasized the importance that any regulatory change needs to be based on scientific evidence and, wherever possible, use outcome-based guidelines that focus on the animal. If animals step off the truck in good shape — no injuries and minimal indicators of stress — the outcome was achieved. If avoidable negative outcomes occur, penalties are needed.
The CCA believes that for a new rule to be meaningful, the supporting research needs to be done using commercial cattle, transport trailers, and drivers under typical commercial distances and conditions in Canada. Arbitrary rule changes that are based solely on perception rather than science could potentially result in more negative outcomes, rather than increasing the already high industry percentage of positive outcomes in transportation today. Canadian cattle producers aren’t opposed to changing the regulations, we simply wish to ensure any imposed change actually improves animal welfare, because what is best for the animal is also best for the producer, consumer and general public.
As I wrote this column, I was making arrangements to attend the CCA’s Fall Picnic in Ottawa on September 27. It’s a good opportunity to showcase the importance of the beef industry’s contribution to the Canadian economy, while enjoying delicious, high-quality Canadian beef.