Collaborative finds many factors in past economic slumps

Columnist David Zirnhelt looks at collaborative finds in the past to determine how to bolster the beef industry.

Some time ago, in the midst of the BSE (mad cow disease) crisis, which further lowered prices for beef on the hoof, the local cattlemen’s association and local Williams Lake economic development authority collaborated to look at what could be done to bolster this money-losing sector of the economy.

These land-based businesses weren’t going anywhere. It is hard to move the ranch land, but you can move the business, except that the whole industry nationwide was in the slump.

According to studies by prominent accounting firms, we here in the Cariboo, had a comparative advantage in that we had lots of land, including public land, that grew lots of grass without costly inputs. That being the case, then what to do was the question.

The same consultants answered this question. There was local processing capacity: abattoirs (slaughtering plants), coolers, and transportation, which could make local beef ready for market here and throughout the province.

Coming shortly after this time were new health rules to protect the public against meat born diseases.

Meat for resale into retail markets would have to be slaughtered in inspected abattoirs. Public outcry by people who felt just fine about home/farm-based slaughter, caused government to back off somewhat on the enforcement of these new tough rules.

But that was not until after the small local abattoirs that wanted to stay in the business invested heavily, some with government support, in renovating the meat plants to meet the new higher standards for cleanliness.

Remember the Alberta meat processing plant that had to recall millions of pounds of meat that might have been contaminated?

Local abattoirs in B.C. were running at less than 50 per cent of their capacity because there wasn’t enough local demand: not enough local cattle to go to their plants and not enough local consumers willing to pay the slightly higher price for a locally finished product.

These local plants can only process dozens of animal per week/month, not thousands per day like the big packing industry can (volume efficiencies).

So to operate and retain staff, more year round supply of adequately finished beef ( or bison, lamb and pork) is essential. These smaller plants can’t process everything, which is ready in the fall.

If moderately priced grass, and until recently hay and silage (forage), was our advantage then, what is the problem, you might ask.

The answer is that the cattle industry for 50-60 years has been breeding bigger cattle to get a large frame on which the feedlots could grow and fatten the beef.

One of the results is that, in the words of one international expert, only five to 10 per cent of the North American herd is suitable for grass or forage finishing.

So you have to have the right genetics and the right pasturing methods.

At the moment, two of the four local abattoirs are much reduced because they can’t get staff: the industry can’t pay as much as mining can, and the foreign labour is nearly impossible to get into the country, even with our shortage, and training isn’t keeping pace.  Abattoir operators can face personal injury and so this industry is vulnerable.

In a later article I will deal more with this local economic dilemma. In the meantime, the cattle industry is very pleased that our large volumes of calves and yearlings have a vigorous marketplace at the BC Livestock Co-op.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which is starting at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.