The cattle industry has adopted new measures needed to work under COVID-19 — and so hope endures and business continues.
“We’re working on trying to make sure that we keep plants open, keep borders open and keep cattle moving and supplies coming in,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.
For the most part, the system is working smoothly.
“A lot of producers are calving right now, so they’re self-isolating anyway,” he said. “The key is that we’re wanting to make sure provinces are consistent in designating all of food and agriculture and the entire agriculture supply chain an essential business.”
Declaring the agricultural supply chain businesses as essential (something the province did on March 26 and Ottawa was expected to also do) is just one aspect of the wider effort to prevent disruptions.
“Overall, the industry is really calm (while) concerned like everyone in the world is concerned about COVID-19,” said Smith. “But from a business perspective, if we can keep the plants going and keep the borders open and keep the supplies coming, the industry will be able to continue.”
Alberta Beef Producers has stepped up communications with its members through email newsletters and social media, and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has created a COVID-19 resources section at cattle.ca.
“We’re doing all the steps we can take to try and ensure that we are doing business,” said Smith. “So far, producers are recognizing that and recognizing that everyone is doing what they can to keep things going.”
Bob Lowe said he’s heard numerous stories about people stepping up to the plate since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
“A classic example of that is bull sales,” said the Nanton rancher and feedlot owner who became president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association last month. “From what I’ve seen and heard, producers are really trying to watch the six-foot distance between people.
“In one bull sale in Saskatchewan, they actually piped water into the sale ring so people could wash their hands. They had bottled water. Coffee cups were individually wrapped.”
Those sorts of efforts are not just to protect the health of individuals but to ensure that everyday business continues as normally as possible, said Lowe.
“Everyone is taking this very seriously and it’s showing,” he said. “Bull sale prices haven’t dropped — they’re having fewer people at the sales, (but) using internet and technology. That’s a real example of how people are stepping up.”
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has been working on trade, labour and other national issues with beef organizations, the federal government and bodies such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“Overall, we continue to focus our efforts on helping stop the spread of COVID-19 and helping our industry and the front-line food workers to do their job safely and ensure the safe supply of food across our nation,” executive vice-president Dennis Laycraft said during an online town hall on March 26.
He, too, said the supply chain is functioning quite well.
“We’ve seen increased production to meet the increased demand that has largely shifted into retail demand,” he said.
But the beef sector hasn’t forgotten its international customers, he added.
“Canada has made a commitment to a number of countries. As export producers, we’re here to ensure that beef is available on the counters, not just in Canada, but in those key markets that we regularly service around the world,” Laycraft said.
He also pointed to the bull sale season as an example of how quickly the sector was able to incorporate new health protocols.
“Sales are quite consistent with last year and we’re feeling pretty good about how our industry has worked together to incorporate risk management practices across our vast country,” he said.
Having COVID-19 deemed a natural disaster will provide some options under the AgriRecovery programs, said Laycraft.
“As this has reached everyone, we’ve asked to eliminate the $3-million (per participant) cap on AgriStability and invoke the late participation clause,” he said.
With the beef cattle herd at its lowest level in three decades, the sector needs to ensure there are enough cattle for feedlots and processors, and so everyone will be hoping for favourable weather for pastures and hayfields.
“Demand has been good for beef (and) exports are strong,” said Smith. “The industry is really strong, and people are just watching the weather and hoping for good spring moisture for crops.”
While cattle prices took a hit when the pandemic began in Canada, they have come back up with the surge in demand (even though much of the restaurant demand has been sidelined).
“We’re not in a bad position to weather this, as long as we can keep everything moving the way it has been,” he said. “Producers understand that.”
There’s been “incredible co-operation through the industry” because everyone realizes what’s on the line, added Laycraft.
“We make decisions that will impact our beef supply two years from now and we also make decisions that will impact our beef supply next week and the week after,” he said.