Canadian producers as a whole have become more efficient over the decades in almost any way you can think to measure.
One example of those gains is a study conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba, Environment Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Those researchers examined how beef production changed from 1981 to 2011. They found that in 2011, Canada produced 32 per cent more beef with 24 per cent less land, 29 per cent fewer breeding animals and 27 per cent fewer slaughter cattle. Slaughter animals were significantly heavier than they were 30 years earlier. Also significant: Canada’s beef industry emitted 15 per cent less greenhouse gas than 30 years earlier. I was thinking about these stats as I wrote a short article on a feed additive that reduces methane emissions in feedlot cattle for News Roundup in our February 2021 issue.
Many readers have likely seen those stats quoted again and again (but if you haven’t, you can easily find a summary of the study online by searching “Beef Cattle Research Council, methane”). I don’t quote that study here to give you all a pat on the back, but to show how much the industry has changed, and is still changing.
However, those stats also hint at some negatives for the beef industry, namely the loss of land for beef production. Cow-calf producers have had to compete with grain farmers for land, and that has been tough. One has to think it’s particularly tough for younger beef producers trying to get started. While the numbers above don’t quite capture this, we also know that the actual number of beef producers has decreased through that time period, a trend that crosses into other sectors. Remaining producers are generally running larger operations, but our national cow herd is at a low ebb.
All of this paints a picture of an industry pressured by various outside forces, that has had to compete for land against more profitable industries and that has weathered some major storms (for example, BSE). Today’s producers have responded by improving their own operations in whatever ways make sense for them, allowing them and often their families to remain in the game.
How can producers improve their own farms and ranches so they can thrive in these challenging times? I think the solutions look a little different on each operation. One way to tackle it is to start by knowing your strengths and interests. There is not much point in focusing all your time and energy on an area you’re not good at or interested in — it would be like me trying to be a sports broadcaster, a career move I’m sure would end badly. Of course, there are parts of every job or business that are a bit mundane or tough, but it’s worth thinking about what is working really well in your operation that you can build on, or if there’s an area you’re interested in that could yield results if you gave it more time.
Sometimes the biggest opportunities lie in identifying and working through the problems. Bruce Derksen writes about one approach to doing this in The Economics of Livestock and Grass, which you’ll also find in our February 2021 issue. Derksen spoke to Dallas Mount of Ranch Management Consulting on how he helps producers improve their economic and ecological picture. One thing Mount talks about is identifying the weak link in the operation’s finances, and “pruning the dead wood.”
Significant change often comes with resistance from other people, as well as risk. Sometimes the people resisting the change are portrayed as backwards-thinking, but I don’t think that’s always fair. Sometimes they’re seeing risks and consequences to the proposed change, and don’t feel the people pushing the change are fully considering those risks. The federal government’s carbon tax and its likely effect on agriculture is a prime example of that, in my opinion.
I think, in some ways, it boils down to what we’re trying to gain with change, and what we need to protect. On the carbon tax side, there has been plenty of coverage on how the feds hope to cut emissions, and how the tax will likely cut into producers’ bottom lines, even with the farm fuel tax exemption, due to costs at other points in the supply chain that will eventually land on the farm.
Proposed changes to AgriStability have been well-received by the cattle associations, but that’s not a done deal until the provinces sign on. Provincial governments could also establish their own carbon tax programs and issue rebates to producers. All this leaves producers caught in the middle, and could put producers in one province at a disadvantage to their neighbours. I know there’s not necessarily a level playing field as it is, due to provinces having to buy-in to certain programs, etc., but it would be good to see everyone get on board.
Financial stability and environmental stewardship may not be linked in the public’s mind, but they certainly are in the beef sector. Anything that drives costs higher for cow-calf producers and renders them less competitive could lead to even more loss of forage and grasslands. So too could any policies that put cow-calf producers at a disadvantage to the grain sector. Often regulators say they don’t want to pay producers for environmentally beneficial practices that they’ve already adopted. However, they should remember that we can always move backwards. We just have to look at the loss of native prairie and forage-growing lands, plus the shrinking cow herd in this country to see that.
Yet there is still a chance to improve at every level within those challenges. We have cow-calf producers doing interesting things to access land (see just one example of this is Heather Smith Thomas’s story from our February 2021 issue). The industry is also making gains environmentally, and that’s a great story to tell. Piper Whelan had an article about the importance of environmental sustainability to millennials in our January issue, and this issue she has a followup piece on how Canada Beef is engaging millennials. Watch for the third article next month. Also interesting: the day I wrote this, I watched a market presentation by Kevin Grier showing that demand for meat (pork, chicken, beef) is rising with North American consumers, indicating there is still plenty of public support for beef production. The bottom line, I think, is that people at every level need to keep their eyes peeled for those opportunities, whether they’re running a beef operation, conducting research or trying to engage policy-makers or the public. Given a chance, the industry will make great strides in the next 30 years.