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Canadian cattle herd numbers continue their long decline

Alberta’s beef herd is down nearly a quarter from its peak, but slaughter numbers are actually up

The Canadian beef cattle herd has shrunk again and is now down nearly 30 per cent from the peak in 2005.

As of July 1, there were 10.36 million head on beef operations, far below the 14.74 million head that were around 14 years ago, according to Statistics Canada’s latest survey.

“I don’t think anybody was overly surprised at the reduction,” said Anne Wasko, market analyst with Gateway Livestock Services.

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In Alberta, the decline has been less dramatic but still substantial. The province had 4.45-million head of beef cattle on July 1 — down 23 per cent from the peak of 5.75 million head in 2005. That means the province now accounts for 43 per cent of the national beef herd (versus 39 per cent in 2005).

But while overall numbers are down, Canadian cow slaughter numbers are up five per cent and cow exports are up four per cent.

National herd numbers continued to fall because of adverse weather conditions, particularly in the Prairie provinces, said Wasko. Prior to the rains that started in some areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan at the end of June, conditions were dismal for grass and moisture.

“That came out of a long winter where everyone had depleted their hay stocks pretty significantly,” said Wasko. “It’s been an ongoing challenge to get anything started.”

Conditions were varied across the Prairies and within Alberta. While areas around Edmonton were saturated, areas along the Trans-Canada, including Brooks, Medicine Hat and Bow Island, were dry. Those places are pretty significant pockets of cow-calf country, noted Wasko.

Most producers are now focused on maintaining their herds, rather than trying to expand, as they struggle with shortages of hay or grass, with high prices for the limited amount of available hay.

However, slaughter numbers remain high because Canada is continuing to import feeder cattle from the United States.

“In the last two years, starting in the fall of ’17, we’ve started to see the import of cattle into our cattle feeding capacity to fill pens that haven’t been filled by the Canadian cow herd,” said Wasko.

The American herd has grown a lot in the past three to four years.

“They’ve increased their cow herd by three million head in that time frame — the supplies are certainly growing south of us,” said Wasko. “Moisture conditions have been exceptional in cow country in the U.S. It’s really a tale of two tales.”

According to CanFax data, the number of cattle on feed in Western Canada has increased.

“A large part of that is imports and fewer feeder exports; keeping the cattle here,” she said.

Importing cattle means that the feeders and the slaughterhouses are full and continuing to function. Cattle slaughter numbers are up.

“Canadian packers are killing more cattle than they did last year and last year was one of the largest kills we’ve had in many years,” said Wasko.

“The market works amazingly well if you give it the chance to, in terms of the North American cattle market. I think that kind of shows whether cattle are moving north or south.”

Canadian cattle prices will likely be a little lower this year, since American cattle prices have fallen with the growth in the size of the U.S. herd.

Prices will also be affected by the exchange rate and the American dollar.

Last year, barley prices were very high, and there was a lot of corn imported from the United States into southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan for feed.

“We’ll watch again this year, but it looks like barley supplies are better,” said Wasko. “There are more acres going to barley here in Canada this year, and as we head to harvest, all signs are that more barley is going to get fed this year than imported corn.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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