As the National Cattle Feeders Association (NCFA) settles into its eighth year of operation, chair Jeff Warrack says the group is now having an impact on government decision makers in Ottawa.
“Our specific focus is on national issues that affect feedlots and with our presence in Ottawa people recognize we have made contributions and want us there,” says Warrack, who operates a family-run feedlot and grain farm with his two brothers, sister and brother in-law near Strathmore, Alta.
The NCFA also works with other industry groups on issues that affect feedlots and the overall state of the beef industry. “It’s important to deliver similar messages,” he says, “but they don’t have to come from a single voice. Many voices have greater impact.”
Joining Warrack on the 2014 board of directors are vice-chair Larry Schweitzer (Manitoba), Bill Freding (British Columbia), Herb Groenenboom (Alberta), John Lawton (Alberta), Ryan Thompson (Saskatchewan), Dale Pallister (Ontario), Michel Diagle (Quebec) and past-chair Bill Jameson, ex-offico (Saskatchewan).
Forming a national association has brought with it a greater awareness and understanding of regional differences and challenges that can be addressed before taking messages beyond the boardroom. At the end of the day, the underlying issues are very similar, Warrack says.
The NCFA has grouped them into three categories underpinning its long-term strategic plan developed last year: growth and sustainability, competitiveness, and industry leadership.
Growth and sustainability
Canfax reports the loss of 21 finishing feedlots in Alberta and Saskatchewan alone in 2012 and another 15 in 2013, though some are still operating as backgrounding lots. As of the first of this year, there were 157 finishing lots with bunk capacity of 1.44 million head. That compares to the peak around 240 in the two provinces in 2004. Though the number of feedlots started to drop that year, finishing capacity remained fairly stable through to its peak of 1.75 million head in 2008 but has been dropping ever since.
“The loss of people from the industry due to lack of profitability for many reasons is an issue across North America and rebuilding will take time,” says Warrack. “It has to start at the cow-calf level and it’s up to us to entice another generation by showing them prospects for opportunity.
“Future growth will be with another business model. Our big efficient plants will continue to do well serving their customers. The opportunity is in plants designed to serve different markets because there are lots of other customers out there.”
Canfax shows a steady decline in packing capacity and slaughter numbers since 2004, but while packers are not working at maximum capacity Warrack suspects they are likely running at optimal capacity as evidenced by the number of southbound fed cattle this year, despite mandatory COOL. U.S. plants need Canadian animals, but Canadian feeders are paying the extra costs incurred.
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“If our goal is growth, we need trade agreements that give access with beef not live cattle, and to take advantage of those agreements we need processing plants with the ability to serve them,” Warrack explains.
The NCFA, therefore, supported the Canadian government’s efforts in all trade negotiations and lobbied hard for the removal of barriers blocking the sale of the Rancher’s Beef plant at Balzac that was shuttered in 2007. This state-of-the-art facility is now under new ownership and poised to become Canada’s largest European Union-approved plant.
The NCFA pushed for and contributed to the independent review of the 2012 massive beef recall at former XL Foods and has been actively following up with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to see that the recommendations are implemented.
An unexpected turn of events was Service Canada’s March decision to remove feedlots from the newly created agriculture stream for the temporary foreign worker program. The reason given was that feedlots aren’t primary agriculture.
The NCFA actively participated in last year’s government-industry task force looking at ways to improve the program that recommended creating a separate stream for agricultural workers to speed up the process and make labour more accessible as needed.
The new Western Livestock Price Insurance Program is one of this year’s highlights that the beef industry across the West has been lobbying for since Alberta launched its price insurance program in 2009.
Warrack says there has been good uptake on the feeder program in Alberta and even in the fed program despite the fact that most fed cattle are forward contracted. “The insurance program needs cash prices to create the settlement indexes and due to the lack of price discovery in the cash market for fed cattle, the people running the program have had to protect themselves, which is understandable,” he explains.
A new file that could have ramifications, particularly for eastern feeders who rely on a supply of feeder calves from the West, is a potential review of cattle transport regulations that may change the guidelines for the time cattle can spend on a truck without rest stops.
“We want to have a hand in this to ensure a balance between animal welfare and commerce,” Warrack says. “Maybe there are other metrics, such as density, that would make more sense and we need to know what the U.S. regulations are so we’re not put at a competitive disadvantage.”
Health Canada is now among the departments the NCFA has an interest in after last October’s announcement that the CFIA will report to the minister of health on food safety activities rather than the minister of agriculture.
There have been concerns among producers about how this would all pan out, but having just returned from a meeting with Health Canada, Warrack says it looks like regulations of concern to feeders will remain with the minister of agriculture.
The mandate of the NCFA also includes working with other cattle associations on industry initiatives and developing strategy training and educational programs, and helping governments and the public understand the feeding sector. c