When Manitoba cattle producer Wilco van Meijl stepped off the plane in Paraguay to attend the International Beef Alliance (IBA) conference in October, he did so with an open mind, a desire to meet new people and to learn more about global beef production.
He certainly achieved his goals and a lot more. “What was exceptional about this trip was that it took my focus away from Brandon, Man., and gave me a global perspective of what’s going on out there,” says van Meijl, who farms at Rapid City, a half hour north of Brandon.
Van Meijl attended IBA as a representative of the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) mentorship program, which he completed in August 2017. Van Meijl’s mentors were Jeff and Lyndsay Smith, owners of Gateway Livestock Exchange Inc. and Prime Analytics in Tabor, Alta. “My main goals of the CYL program were to get some different experiences through meeting new people, and to learn more about some of the risk management opportunities that are available in the beef industry,” he says.
CYL mentees were invited to compete for the seat at IBA by submitting a two-minute video outlining issues they felt were important to the Canadian beef industry. Van Meijl’s video addressed two major challenges that concern him: enticing new, young producers into primary beef production and overcoming labour gaps.
“Getting young producers excited about actually raising beef cattle is a big challenge that the industry is going to face,” he says. “To me, the economics of it is a concern. It’s been a perfect storm against the beef cattle herd expanding in that we had BSE, we had a dollar over par which didn’t help our export market. At the same time, cash crops over the last 10 years have been profitable for producers, so we’ve seen land go out of pasture into crop production. Land costs have also soared, so the affordability to put cows on certain types of land has been unfeasible when you look at some of the returns from crops.”
A lot to discuss
Youth leaders from all of the seven IBA countries — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay and the United States — met to discuss beef production in their respective countries. General sessions, involving members of beef producer organizations from these countries, tackled topics including engaging through social media, the potential impact to the beef industry from alternative, synthetic proteins and international trade issues.
By far the biggest highlight, says van Meijl, was the production tours. “It was an awesome experience to see beef production in Paraguay,” he says. “It’s a developing country, so there are challenges associated with that such as infrastructure. There are really only two main roads to get anywhere. One ranch was 33,000 hectares with 22,000 head which they rotated around 640-hectare paddocks that they divided into six smaller ones to run around 250 cows in each. What impressed me was the use of technology, the intensive production and the opportunity to improve the land that they have. They have 14 million head with a population of just under seven million people, so they are a big beef-producing country.”
The general trade sessions were another eye opener for van Meijl, who realized that some issues taking front and centre in North America — like the use of hormones — are a non-issue in other beef-producing countries. “Hormones are big chatter in Canada and the U.S., but it’s a moot point for most of the other countries,” he says. “Australia and New Zealand have a lot of grass-fed-type programs, and in South America, they leave bulls intact so they don’t use hormones. There is sound science behind why we use them, and from an efficiency standpoint, we have a climate that gets to minus 30, so being able to help that animal stay efficient helps keep us competitive in the industry. I thought maybe that was going to be an issue for everyone, so it opened my eyes to what the rest of the world is doing.”
Although the countries at IBA compete for global beef markets, van Meijl says it was refreshing to see how willing they all are to work together for the sake of the beef industry worldwide. “We were all there to raise beef demand, and the profile of beef, reduce those non-tariff barriers that exist amongst countries, and ensure we get more beef on the plates of global consumers. That was a really cool thing to see. The biggest takeaway was being able to see the perspective of global beef trade and where we are relative to that in Canada.”
Bringing experiences back to the farm
Wilco and his wife Adrienne, farm with his parents Cor and Hannie (who moved from the Netherlands in 1982), as well as his brother Eric and his wife Jamie, at Rapid City, about half an hour north of Brandon, Man. As the farm transitions to the next generation, the brothers are taking on more responsibility for different aspects of the operation, but with both also working off the farm, it’s sometimes a challenge to get all the work done.
Eric works at Masterfeeds, so his knowledge of livestock nutrition allows them to make good use of different feedstuffs, maximize feed efficiency and animal health.
Van Meijl’s off-farm career included 10 years working with Cargill, where he learned a lot about crop production, grain pricing and marketing. He now works on the financial side of the industry as a district director for Farm Credit Canada, and his combined experiences bring a lot of value to the farm operation from an economic and marketing standpoint.
“We have to know our cost of production, which is important, obviously, from a financing end of things, but when we are making business decisions it takes the emotion out of it, because there is a lot of ‘could of, should of, would of’ when it comes to marketing,” says van Meijl. “Being able to understand cost of production, where we need to be from a margin standpoint and where our goals lie helps me with marketing decisions. We need to understand whether we can take a profit at any point in time and then be happy with the decision. As an example, last year, calf markets were down near the bottom when we sold our first lot of calves, but we were still over the cost of production. This year when we were selling, calves were between $250 and $280 per head ahead of where we were last year, so how could we not be happy with taking that margin?”
Van Meijl’s participation in CYL and a firm handle on the economics of the operation meant the farm was able to take its first foray into direct marketing this year. “We’ve been talking for years about wanting to direct market some of our calves, but through our interaction with Jeff and Lyndsay we saw the opportunity to finally do it,” he says. “When I look at CYL, the IBA, and all these opportunities I was involved in, working at Cargill and Farm Credit Canada, I think the big thing I have taken out of all those experiences is being comfortable with change. The big challenge is always, still, getting all the work done.”