High River to resume cattle slaughter Wednesday

Cargill plans to resume harvesting of cattle Wednesday (July 3) at its beef slaughter and processing plant — one of Canada’s largest — at flood-battered High River, Alta.

The news comes as local and provincial authorities assess residential and commercial buildings and re-open parts of the community to public access. About 1,500 residences and 219 businesses have been processed since re-entry began in stages on Saturday, the province said Tuesday.

Cargill’s plant, which processes up to 40 per cent of cattle slaughtered in Western Canada, is north of town and wasn’t directly affected by the flooding in the wake of heavy rains which began in the region around June 19.

However, with the town underwater, many plant employees evacuated, roads cut or damaged, and potable water unavailable for processing, Cargill had shut down all operations at the plant by June 21, but kept its cafeteria open for local emergency workers and others.

Slaughter hasn’t yet restarted, but processing work resumed briefly last week on carcasses stored in the plant’s coolers, as the company drew down its stored potable water onsite and hauled more water to the plant by truck.

Brigitte Burgoyne, a spokesperson at the U.S. company’s Canadian head office in Winnipeg, said Tuesday Cargill is “more comfortable that we will have a continued supply of water coming from the Town of High River.”

However, she added, Cargill “will have to treat this water on-site to bring it to potable standard.”

The company emphasized that restoring potable water first to the residents of High River is a priority, and Cargill said it “will work with the Town to make sure this local need is met.”

With the water supply it now has available, the company said it plans to resume cattle harvesting Wednesday (July 3).

“We hope to resume additional operations later this week,” Burgoyne said in an email Tuesday, but added “all of our operational decisions will be driven by the amount of fresh water available to harvest cattle and process beef.”

Burgoyne emphasized that Cargill has received “full collaboration and support at all levels” but notes “we still remain in a vulnerable situation and respect that things can change very quickly.”

“Slow month”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association expects “minimal” impact on cattle markets if the Cargill plant remains closed for less than 10 days, as feedlots are now “very current.”

However, the CCA warned producers, if the Cargill plant must stay closed longer, “the basis will widen, potentially back to what was seen last October when the (former XL Foods plant at Brooks, now run by JBS) was temporarily closed.”

In that scenario, disruptions — as cattle are fed to heavier weights, or must keep to a specific feeding program — could add costs for feedlots, on top of the potential for lower prices, the CCA said.

“This could potentially pressure feeder prices, but July is one of the slowest months for feeder trade,” the association said. Cows could also see pressure, but July is also a slow month for marketing cows.”

Cargill said last week it had secured portable water filtration systems to draw and process water from a local source. The Alberta government last Thursday said it had provided pumps and irrigation piping to bring those systems on-line and would work to “expedite all necessary approvals.”

The Cargill plant is a major employer in the region, with about 2,000 employees. When operating at full capacity, the plant can slaughter and process up to 4,500 cattle per day.

“In the days ahead, we will continue to work with Cargill on a solution that will keep cattle moving through the plant, keep people working and keep the economic heart of High River beating,” provincial Ag Minister Verlyn Olson said last Thursday.

Work-sharing

But given the “continued uncertainty” around production, Cargill said it will continue its work to try and get in on a federally-backed employee income support program, until the High River plant can resume work at full speed.

Cargill said last Friday it would need Ottawa to make amendments to the federal Work-Sharing program, to get past “limitations” in legislation that would prohibit the plan the company has in mind. The exact limitations weren’t specified.

Work-Sharing (WS) is an adjustment program meant to help employers and employees avoid layoffs when the normal work levels at a facility temporarily slow down or stop for reasons “beyond the control of the employer.”

The program provides income support to employees eligible for employment insurance (EI) benefits, who work a temporarily-reduced work week as the employer’s business recovers, as per a three-party agreement between an employer, employees and the federal government.

The federal government on Tuesday also announced it will extend status for temporary and permanent residents in the region.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said procedures are now in place until Sept. 19 to help temporary and permanent residents in southern Alberta who, because of the flood, need to apply for urgent immigration documents, replace lost or destroyed documents or extend work or study permits. — AGCanada.com Network

Related stories:
Alberta’s farms escape worst of flooding, June 29, 2013
High River beef plant back offline, June 26, 2013
XL Foods’ operator to become owner, Jan. 9, 2013

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