“You can ask him about his own operation, but the conversation always comes back to the current industry issues and WSGA.”
Primary producers hold the key to bring back profitability and sustainability to the Canadian cattle industry, says Western Stock Growers’ Association president Bill Hanson. “Post-BSE, producers disengaged from their industry, spurring them back to the table will turn the sector around.”
Hanson says improved communication will facilitate the process, because today there is a disconnect between producers, associations and governments.
To that end, WSGA is sponsoring a tour June 21-23 to the Lethbridge Research Centre and area feedlots. Buses will originate in Lloydminster and Grande Prairie. The purpose of the tour, co-sponsored by the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, is to engage producers and stimulate communication.
“As cow-calf producers, our number-one consumer is the feedlot,” Hanson said during a recent interview on his ranch near here, which he operates along with his wife Jeanne. “Hopefully, it’s an opportunity to get some dialogue going, talk about the good, the bad and the ugly issues.”
Hanson says he has always been a believer in the old saw, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s what drove him to get involved in WSGA seven years ago.
“Jeanne and I believed that if you want to see change, you have to help make it happen instead of complaining down at the coffee shop.” Hanson became WSGA president two years ago. “The industry has been good to us and despite some difficult years we wanted to give something back,” he said.
Jeanne says it’s hard to separate Bill’s role with the WSGA from that of a cattleman.
“You can ask him about his own operation, but the conversation always comes back to the current industry issues and WSGA,” she says.
The couple are third-generation ranchers. He grew up in east central Alberta near Provost, she in Cypress Hills. They moved to the Valleyview area 12 years ago. “We were tired of drought and wanted more moisture, and it had to be where land could pay for itself through on-farm income.”
The Hansons bought 11 quarters and then installed electric fencing to create 40-acre paddocks on all quarters. “We believe in intensive management,” he said. “We move the herd through the paddocks and set bales where the nutrients are needed. The organic matter builds up, the grass improves and so does the water cycle.” They use 12 quarter horses to handle the cattle. Currently, they also custom-graze about 700 head, though that number has been as high as 1,000.
Hanson says there are challenges in northern Alberta with longer winters and distance from markets. “Usually those are offset with cheaper winter feed but the drought has impacted that. There’s no carryover of feed and the pastures are in bad shape,” he said.
In the meantime, Hanson will be at work on issues the WSGA is grappling with, such as the government’s contentious Land Use Framework. “We’ve submitted a White Paper on the regional plan for the South Saskatchewan Region,” he said. How the proposed framework will affect private landowner property rights is a key issue.
The WSGA has been acting as a facilitator in the sale of the Balzac packing plant, said Hanson. “We’ve done a fair bit of research on what it would take to make the plant viable again.” he said.
Hanson says regulatory burdens have “hamstrung” the cow-calf producer. Age verification and traceability represents a huge opportunity, but the primary producers can’t benefit and there is a lack of willing processors to take advantage of traceability benefits. “The regulatory burdens are placed on the shoulders of the cow-calf producer,” he said. The $3 age-verification refund doesn’t go far, Hanson said. Much larger investments of time and money are spent in administration and record-keeping.
“Some say the cost of age-verification is as high as $12-15 a head,” he said. “That’s a long way from the $3 refund on the tag.” Those costs, he says, should be paid by the people who benefit from the regulations.
Hanson says producers just aren’t getting through to the government and its regulatory agencies, citing the multimillion allotment to packers in the last federal budget. “This is not a benefit to the grassroots producer,” he said.
Hanson said, the WSGA was founded in 1896 and it’s ironic the organization’s priorities are much the same as they were more than a century ago – animal identification, then simply called branding, market access and property rights. Still, Hanson is optimistic about the future of the Canadian cattle industry. “We supply only 60 per cent of our own domestic market, so there’s a huge opportunity… we just have to collectively work together.”