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Things need to change, and soon, if Ontario is going to keeps what remains of its beef industry.

At least that’s the opinion of Tom Vanrabaeys, one of the province’s larger feedlot operators.

“I see a shortage of feeder cattle coming in the next five years,” Vanrabaeys says.

“The cow-calf guys are shrinking and we need to keep them in business… we need more money at the finishing end so we can give more to them.”

Vanrabaeys speaks with the assurance of a cattleman who grew up in the business but his is not the only opinion. He remembers a discussion he had with a buyer with Cargill.

“He told me that the biggest problem in Ontario is that we get too much for the feeder cattle.”

Vanrabaeys says he tried to change the buyer’s mind but may not have been successful. He cites the same-day price spread earlier this year which he feels cannot entirely be explained by quality differences or traceability programs.

“Cargill was trying to lower the market.”

Still, the profit motivation is also something Vanrabaeys appreciates.

With help from eight employees, including three family members, he feeds almost 3,000 cattle and plans an expansion. Today, most cattle are kept for several weeks, a far cry from the pre-BSE situation.

“We’ve always fed some cattle. But before BSE we bought mainly short-keep cattle. Now we’re buying more six-to-eight-week cattle…. We buy and sell on the same market.”

Vanrabaeys acquires them in a number of ways. This past spring, about 10 per cent came from Western Canada and others were secured through private treaty from Ontario producers.

The biggest source, however, is Ontario’s auction markets. Vanrabaeys is a familiar face at some and he works through a buyer for the others. Together they make purchases at Keady, Denfield, Brussels, Kitchener, Talbotville and Cargill.

When purchasing cattle, Vanrabaeys makes a flat bid for everything in a group as long as there are no animals over 30 months.

“Price is everything here,” he says.

He isn’t looking to spend the top dollar for preconditioned cattle — though he feels they’re probably a good fit for some operators.

For example, if the top price being paid for 600-to 700-pound animals are $1.25 for steers and $1.15 for heifers, Vanrabaeys it likely to come in 20 cents under. While there may be some sacrifice once they’re home, in terms of treatment costs and initial gain, he figures he’s ahead overall.

“Being in the business all my life you can pick the calves… This business is about the only thing I know but I’m still learning something new every day.”

His animals are treated shortly after arrival. He has confidence in the management products that are available today.

Bruce Coulter, owner of Denfield Livestock Sales, says Vanrabaeys has had a positive influence on the industry and knows his way around cattle as well as any. “He buys cattle and does a good job at it and supports the sales…. If he’s around, well, nobody steals anything.”

Jim Clark, general manger of the Ontario Cattle Feeders Association, says Vanrabaeys has been a mainstay for the cattle industry in Chatham-Kent, an area of Southwestern Ontario where beef producers switched to cash crops and other agricultural pursuits years ago.

Vanrabaeys has also been flexible in his approach, Clark says, shipping cattle to wherever higher profits beckon.

“That’s what keeps our market strong — cattle going in all different directions. Cattle are a long-standing tradition with his family.”

When Vanrabaeys spoke to CANADIAN CATTLEMEN in late spring, most of his finished cattle were going to Ontario slaughter plants.

Stateside profits had dried up with the strengthened dollar. Another hindrance to U. S. sales, he says, is the country-of-origin labelling legislation.

Because of COOL, U.S. and Canadian cattle can no longer be freely mingled and while many U.S. plants still want Canadian cattle, they need a sufficient number to maintain processing efficiency.

The higher numbers are something Vanrabaeys might have delivered prior to BSE when his key business revolved around assembling cattle at his Thamesville yard.

“Before BSE we had five cattle pods plus what we hired — an average of 800 cattle a week were going to Joslin, Illinois.”

Along with younger animals, Vanrabaeys feeds around 250 cows, putting on lean muscle over the 80 to 100

days. They’ve sold to Gord’s Abbatoir at Leamington which has established an ethnic market for modestly priced, older animals with white fat.

Vanrabaeys is also hoping to avoid feeding cattle on contract — though he sees the arrangement becoming more common in the future.

“I like the open market. My father (the late Edgar Vanrabaeys) wasn’t all for it. He tired to get in supply management back in 1985 with Beef Producers For Change.”

Vanrabaeys and his dad had some interesting discussions in those days but, each in their way, had the best interest of the industry at heart.

More than 20 years later, many of the same concerns remain. No one is getting any younger and many young people have off-farm futures already in the works.

“The average age of the cow-calf farmer, I would guess, is high sixties. Do we have a young generation behind them? My guess would be that’s true 25 per cent of the time.”

There are other industry concerns, Vanrabaeys says.

One has been the price of hides, fallout from the global economic crisis. “Previously hides were worth $100. Today, because the demand for leather has fallen, hides are only worth around $10.”

Tom Vanrabaeys’ grandfather, Victor, immigrated to Western Canada with little more than his ambition. He farmed near Norquay, Sask. and died at 44.

Edgar Vanrabaeys was first exposed to the auction ring at Norquay. He moved to Ontario at 19. Edgar and his wife, Patricia, founded Thames Sales Yard in 1963 which operated as an auction until 1986.

Tom Vanrabaeys is 50. He and his wife Laurie have four children.

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