After a decade in “cow politics” — and a lifetime in the cattle sector — Bob Lowe has a pretty straightforward wish for what he’d like to see in the coming decade.
“I’d like to see Canada’s beef industry get bigger,” said the Nanton rancher and feedlot operator, who is also president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“Right now, we’ve got the lowest numbers of cows in the last 20 years. We’ve missed two (profitable) cycles of increasing the herd. Basically, we don’t have enough cattle to really take advantage of our export potential. It would be nice to keep the beef herd growing and keep the trade going.”
But his answer to what is needed to build the national herd is more nuanced.
“To put it bluntly, I’d like to see a profitable beef industry where the population is confident enough in the health factors and environmental footprint of beef — that we see those anti-animal agriculture people go someplace else,” he said. “I’d love it if food production was not questioned all the time.”
Lowe is one of a large number of producers and other beef industry players who have led the effort to show that cattle and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. He’s been heavily involved in the sustainable beef movement through both the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and its global counterpart.
“Canada is so far ahead of the rest of the world,” he said. “There’s just no comparison.”
It’s a view shared by another Alberta rancher who has also served on a host of provincial and national beef organizations.
“I hope within the next 10 years that we will have stronger consumer confidence in the beef production process,” said Doug Sawyer. “I know that’s a tall order… and I know it’s going to take a long time. But I want consumers to feel comfortable that when they choose a beef product, that they know that they aren’t damaging the environment, the welfare is in place, and it’s a healthy choice for them.”
The cow-calf producer from Pine Lake currently co-chairs the trade committee of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and predicts the demand for protein — both animal and plant based — will be very strong in the coming decade.
The Canadian beef sector needs to seize that opportunity, he said.
“I think we can achieve a 20 per cent larger cow herd,” said Sawyer. “That will allow smaller producers to come back into the industry. We’ve lost a lot of 20- or 30-head hobby people. I think seeing the strong demand will allow them a way to come back and enjoy owning cows and contributing to the industry.”
If the Canadian herd does grow, Canada will need to export more beef. But many producers are frustrated that trade deals — particularly with the EU — haven’t lived up to their promise.
“We’ve got a lot of trade barriers there that are taking a lot of time to resolve,” Sawyer acknowledged. “We’ve got unrestricted access into our market. We’ve got tariffs going into their markets. It’s not a true free trade agreement.”
But progress is being made, he said.
“I think, in 10 years, hopefully less, we will see a true free trade agreement with the United Kingdom and the European Union,” he said. “We will see over the next few years, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (trade agreement) work its way in and those kinks will be worked out, which will support stronger protein demand for us here.”
Cow-calf producer and backgrounder Assar Grinde has some other items he’d like to see improved in the coming decade. That list includes things such as better ear tags and improved traceability software along with good internet so ranchers can better leverage those types of innovations. And more small abattoirs would allow more producers to directly market beef.
But the foundation under those sorts of things is having the public view the cattle sector in favourable terms, he said.
“Canada has been a leader in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef,” said Grinde, who owns Blindman Beef near Rimbey. “I hope we just keep going down that path — that we’re the leaders in being able to market beef with specific attributes and have that traceability system ahead of everybody else.”
The pieces are in place, it’s a matter of strengthening the individual parts and linking them together, he said.
“In terms of actual production, I think the link between the producer and the consumer should be strengthened. The producer needs to get paid for what the consumer wants and there are programs out there right now. The link just isn’t strong enough to drive producers in that direction and there are so many things that consumers want.”
Thanks to efforts such as the sustainable beef initiative, he said he is hopeful the “kind of bad perception” of beef will be replaced by a positive one in the coming decade.
“I think it’s starting to change already,” said Grinde, one of the younger faces on the board of Alberta Beef Producers.
Coupling that with programs that financially reward producers for raising superior cattle, using verified production methods, and providing ecological goods and services would be a game changer, he said.
“In 10 years, if it’s profitable, we’ll see way more young people on farms,” said Grinde. “I’m pretty optimistic. I think there’s a lot of good things happening in the industry.”
Lowe shares that view.
“People accuse me of seeing rainbows and lollipops,” he said. “We’re going to have our problems, but I think we’re going to have a pretty bright industry. The younger people that I talk to are pretty excited to be part of it. And that’s what will keep it going.”