Issue 251: November 2007


Home on the Range


In cowboy culture, cattle ranchers are “real men”, while shepherds are ... well, not really. So I couldn’t resist a wry smile as I read an article in Western Producer (1/11/07) about cattle ranchers converting to sheep, even as one sheep promoter admitted, “it’s not easy being a sheep producer in cattle country”. The final paragraph quotes Merrell Dickie as saying, “There is a real need for consistent, year-round supply. All the big stores want lamb every day of the week” –  and every week of the year, I would add.

We built the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-op – ‘Northumberlamb” – on this understanding 25 years ago. In those days, the only ‘big store’ in the Maritimes was Sobey’s, and Frank Sobey himself supported our endeavor because he wanted fresh lamb in his stores year-round. It took us – a small group of dedicated farmers  – just two years to achieve that! So I’m glad to hear now that farmers in Alberta have finally gotten the message. Of course, one of the reasons they are able to hear the message is that cattle prices are lower than ever. A few years after taking up sheep on our own farm Cathleen and I sold our 30-cow herd during one of the rather frequent bottoms of the “beef cycle,” but we did not regret it, even though running sheep and cattle together would have been the better practice agronomically. We just could not manage it on our scattered land base. 

Dickie’s singing the praises of Sunterra Meats brings on another wry smile. Sunterra’s sheep business is based on a slaughterhouse/packing plant in Innisfail, Alberta. For a while back in the 80s Innisfail was a big pain in the ass to the livestock farmers because of the huge government subsidies that enabled the plant to be built and subsequently undercut prices. In Nova Scotia we were far enough away, and well enough established, to be unaffected, but the same could not be said for the rest of the country. I would still pick a bone with Sunterra because, according to its website, it guarantees its customers that all its lambs are grain-fed for a minimum of 60 days. Our goal was to maximize grass-fed lamb, with grain being fed primarily because the grass does not grow in a Maritime winter and we were supplying fresh lamb year round. Anyway, we wish Sunterra well, along with the cattle ranchers who have had the wool pulled off their eyes.

Unfortunately we cannot end this little story at this point. Next to the article on sheep was one on the sorry state of the cattle business. Prices are worse than ever, at least for the farmers and ranchers.  Now, the article concludes, the only optimism regarding cattle is that prices have been low before and they eventually bounce back. As the rancher quoted says, “The optimism will come from the fact that it has always corrected itself in the past.” Cargill, of course, as the major cattle processor in Canada, stands to benefit hugely from this naive optimism.  

A 6-year-old's Vision of a Cowboy

A more sober, personal report on the cattle scene is provided by Paul Beingessner of Truax, Saskatchewan:

It was the accumulation of bills from a season of sowing and reaping that caused me to sell 25 of my calves last week. Those bills hanging over my head, coupled with a less than average hay crop, put me in something of a no-choice situation. It hasn’t rained appreciably since the end of June here, and dried up pastures and little-to-no regrowth on hay fields added to the need to pare down the number of head chewing on dead grass.

So I took a look at the stack of bills on my desk, eyed the cattle prices in the farm papers, and did a little calculating on how much I needed out of the herd right now. I figured twenty-five calves, topped up with a half dozen cull cows should at put a dent in the credit card balance. I did this, calculating what I figured was a realistic price for those calves. Not a good price mind you, but a realistic one. If they averaged $500 apiece I figured I could get by.

Of course the idea of $500 calves left me pretty glum. Even at the peak of the BSE crisis, I always managed to average better than that. What came out of the envelope from the auction mart left me more than a bit glum. It pretty much reduced me to an incoherent, blubbering mess.

For one thing, the weights were lower than I  expected. That was due to the dry, hot summer and pastures that went prematurely brown. But when weights are down, price per pound is usually up. After all, someone else has the opportunity to put more weight on the smaller calves. Wrong. The sorry truth was that 15 steer calves, averaging a post-shrink 510 pounds, brought an average of only $428. Even worse, ten heifer calves, averaging 490 pounds, brought a dismal $382. It was a far cry from the $500 of my pre-sale fantasy.

The deepest insult came with a 495 pound  red steer that sold for 57 cents a pound, bringing a whopping $274. I checked my records from previous years. A calf from the same cow in 2004, in the middle of the BSE crisis, was somewhat heavier at 530 pounds. However, it returned $538, nearly double this year’s take.

And don’t get me started about those six  cull cows. With an average weight of 1,343 pounds and a price of 18 cents a pound, they brought $243 each. I checked out the dressing percentages of cull cows on several internet sites. I figure those cows were each good for at least 450 pounds of lean hamburger. Of course, the packer likely ripped out the top loins and a few other choice bits, sold the livers, tongues, and other organs, and covered his processing costs just from the offal.

When I got the cheque from my calves, I was furious. The trouble was, I had no idea whom to be angry with. But give me a few months, and I might just figure it out. I wonder if it could be the folks who turn a $243 cow into $800 to $1,000 worth of food?                         – Paul Beingessner


#251: November 2007 TOC
Home on the Range: Brewster looks at the woes of cattle ranchers, with a story from Paul Beingessner
Of course, why didn't we think of that before? - a technological 'solution' for beef farmers
Workers Win Damages Against Pesticide Company - Nicaraguan farmworkers win a suit against Dow Food
Non-GM Premium Prices - soy, canola, and lamb
So why are farmers growing more GM crops? - farmer Colleen Ross explains the pressure to keep up appearances
Collusion - BASF sets the rules for field trials in the UK
The Editorial Process - Writing an article on good fats and bad fats
Chicken Soup ... - announcement of hens manipulated to produce pharmaceutical eggs
... With Rice - and announcement of GE rice to 'grow' pharmaceuticals
The "Tortilla Crisis" - the effects of subsidized corn production for ethanol on food prices
US Farm Subsidies for Mega-Corps - cotton supports go to Cargill
Classifying 'Consumers' - Nestle reveals its target demographics
Just in time for Holiday Giving! - Devlin Kuyek's new book, Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada is a great read and available, hot off the press, from The Ram's Horn