The Maritimes beef industry may be small but the quality is high and there’s plenty of opportunity for growth, according to Amy Higgins.
“We have lots of access to grass and forages,” says Higgins. “And generally, land costs are much lower here than, say, Ontario.”
Higgins and her family run a small purebred Black Angus farm and she started up a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation two years ago in Quispamsis, New Brunswick. She also works part-time as the industry co-ordinator for the Maritime Beef Council.
Atlantic Beef Products in Prince Edward Island is the only federally registered processor in the region and slaughters about 600 head a week. While it is committed to sourcing locally, the company does need to ship fat cattle from Ontario and Quebec from time to time to fill hook space.
“There’s a limited amount of feeding capacity here,” she says. “We could fill the niche if we got a bit more efficient.”
Most of the feedlots are also on Prince Edward Island, with pockets in northern New Brunswick. While the island seems an unlikely choice as the centre of the region’s beef sector, in earlier times the draw was a good feed supply: rotating grain crops for potatoes and the waste from processing spuds.
Last spring, the Maritime Beef Council published its Maritime Beef Sector Development and Expansion Strategy, with an ambitious target of increasing the regional herd by 20,000 head in the next 10 years.
The strategy notes that the herd has been dwindling since 2007, from 63,700 cows and 8,100 replacement heifers to 42,300 cows and 6,200 replacement heifers in January 2016. At the same time, Atlantic Beef Products is expanding and is anticipating a need for 10,000 additional feeders per year. There are also opportunities to supply the Ontario Corn-Fed Beef program, which is ramping up demand.
A central piece of the strategy is the eight-module Maritime Beef School, which will provide professional development opportunities for producers in a range of topics including pasture management, feeding and nutrition, breeding strategies, business management and marketing.
There are also research, extension and marketing components to the strategy, which focuses on four areas: seedstock development, cow-calf production, background feeding and finish feeding. Higgins says that most of the work will be in “tweaking” some of things that have worked for many years.
She points to her own farm, and says that she could double or triple her herd of 23 cows without needing additional land by managing the pastures a little bit better, running some water lines and a few other strategies.
“We need to manage things instead of just harvesting what grows,” she says.
Higgins says that the last couple of years have not been great for forages and that 2019 started off with a significant shortage. In 2018, there were 40 days without rain between July and September.
This year was better — not a bumper crop, and fall rains hindered corn silage chopping — but there seem to be decent stocks going into the winter.
“The first cut was not the best, but people have had better luck with the second cut,” she says. Most of the grains were looking good as well.
Lack of price insurance a drawback
British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all have the Western Livestock Price Insurance Program. Ontario has a Risk Management Program and Quebec has Programme d’assurance stabilisation des revenus agricoles (ASRA).
But Higgins says that Maritime producers don’t have access to price insurance, aside from the national AgriStability program. This presents another barrier to growth.
“Having no price insurance makes it very difficult for new producers to get loans from the bank because you have no baselines or guarantees to get them,” she says.
It also makes business and risk management planning tricky because there’s no backstop if things go awry.
“We’re working diligently with the Canadian Cattlemen (Association) to find a local solution — we don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’s been identified as a definite barrier.”
Higgins points to the fact that she has to grow vegetables in a CSA in order to diversify her operation enough to be able to go from a full-time job to a part-time job.
“And I still don’t know if that’s going to work,” she says.
Dairy to beef
There’s a growing segment of dairy producers who are taking advantage of new beef opportunities by breeding cows that won’t be used as replacements to beef bulls and producing bull calves.
“I know one producer who’s getting triple-A grading on 98 per cent of his cattle,” Higgins says, adding that, done properly, the dairy beef tastes just as good as traditionally raised beef.
Higgins came back to New Brunswick in 2017 after working for Cargill for 11 years in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
As a purebred Angus producer, she takes pride in the quality of the cattle in the Maritimes, and is hopeful for the future of the industry.
“There are a few things we can do to be more competitive,” she says. “It will take a little bit of change and little bit of risk management, but we can do it.” c
Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.