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Alberta cattle numbers are no longer falling — but herds are on the move

Some counties are seeing a major increase due to bigger herds, but crops are replacing cattle in other areas

While the Alberta cow herd has stopped shrinking, it has not yet rebounded.

“The positive returns for the cow-calf producers over the last few years indicate the Alberta cow herd has finally stopped shrinking,” said Herman Simons, a farm business management specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “In fact, the total beef cow numbers for 2016 show a small increase of about 13,500 head as compared to 2011.”

The largest reduction in cows since the 2006 census inventory was in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor in 2011.

“Since then, this region has rebounded somewhat while the northeast and the west have continued to shrink in total head of cows,” said Simons. “The southern region (all counties below Calgary) seems to have rebounded the best — however, this region also saw the lowest reduction in numbers. The south had a reduction of 48,000 head in 2011, as compared to 2006, which is ‘only’ an 11 per cent reduction as compared to most of the rest of Alberta, which saw cow herds reduce between 28 and 37 per cent in the same period.”

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It is welcome seeing some stability, and even a minimum amount of growth, he said.

“All regions (other than the west and northeast) have seen an increase of cow numbers since 2011. Most of that occurred in the south (an eight per cent increase from 2011) and the east (a five per cent increase from 2011).”

At the same time, he says, the number of farms is reducing.

“This decline seems to be faster for the beef sector in Alberta as compared to the average of all Canadian farms. There was a reduction of just over 10 per cent of Alberta cow-calf producers in 2016 from 2011, as compared to the Canadian average of about six per cent for the same period for all farmers.”

There are fewer herds in Alberta but they’re larger in numbers. And they’re being moved off of land deemed suitable for crop production and onto more marginal land.
photo: Canada Beef Inc.

This reduction in the number of farms means herds are getting larger. In the last 15 years, the average herd size has increased by 50 per cent (to 95 cows per farm versus 63 cows). There is a large difference between the different counties. Larger farms are found in the counties of Ranchland No. 66 (average herd size of 231 cows), Special Areas 2 and 4 (173 and 194 head respectively) and Cardston County (170 head). The counties with the smallest average herd size are Mackenzie (34 head), Strathcona (40 head), Fairview (52 head), Lamont and Sturgeon counties (54 head each).

Cows are also moving away from their traditional areas, said Simons.

“For instance, the counties along the Highway 2 corridor between Edmonton and Calgary have seen a drop of close to 40 per cent in the number of cows since 2001, when almost 500,000 head were grazing in this region, to just over 300,000 in 2016. High land value and improved crop revenue are likely to have played major roles in this.”

Southern Alberta seems to be an exception to this trend as cow numbers have rebounded to pre-BSE levels of about 398,000 head and are almost at 404,000 head in 2016.

“The current challenges related to the bovine tuberculosis (TB) issue are not included in these numbers, as TB became an issue after the census data was collected,” said Simons. “The counties of Cardston and Cypress are notable as the cow herd increased from 2001 levels by about 12,500 head to just over 107,500 total in 2016. With almost 62,000 beef cows, Cypress County had the highest numbers in Alberta in 2016.”

Eastern Alberta has mostly recovered in cow numbers as well. The region, which had about 374,000 head in 2001, is back up to just over 371,000 in 2016.

“The only other region, other than southern Alberta, that has seen an increase in cow numbers is the Peace, likely due to lower land values and the availability of more marginal land. Cow numbers there have increased by about 15 per cent from 2001 to about 123,000.”

Profitability is the driving force in herd numbers, but there are other factors at play, Simons added.

“Grassland is competing with crop production and it seems that where good productive dryland is available cows are slowly moving away as that grassland is converted into crop. These animals are instead moved towards areas where there is more low cost, marginal land that is more suitable for grass and forage production than for crop.”

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