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RANCH MUSINGS: What does our industry look like coming out the other side of the pandemic?

The most recent plant to open is in Westwold but they are only taking cull cows
Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

It has been said by many that the pandemic has just sped up or enhanced trends in the food industry that were already there.

This week I want to comment on some trends that are affecting us whether we are producers of food or consumers.

If you want to get a beef slaughtered and cut up in a plant that has been inspected and is regularly inspected along with the meat being processed, then you probably are waiting over a year to get a place in the line up. And your trip to the slaughterhouse will take you two or three hours.

The most recent plant to open is in Westwold but they are only taking cull cows for the near future. Their main business is shareholders cattle, with custom work for others being secondary to this main business.

There has been a feasibility study and business plan done for a new plant in the Williams Lake area and apparently someone is looking at the possibility of a plant close to Quesnel.

Neither of these will help us in the short term. Good luck to them in launching these new businesses.

Large and medium scale processing of chickens has been hampered by the cost of being pandemic risk averse in their operations. This trend has sped up when several plants had been getting more and more specialized. For example, consumers are wanting smaller and smaller turkeys so newer plants are gearing up for small birds only as an efficiency measure.

READ MORE: The road home from Lhoosk’uz (Kluskus)

This is happening at the same time as some producer marketers have markets for pieces of turkey. Cut up birds should be bigger to make the cuts large enough meet the demand. Yet few plants will or can process these big birds.

Recent articles in the Vancouver papers have indicated that farmers who are direct marketers of meat in BC have been going out of business because of the distance to abattoirs.

Critics will say that government needs to support local processing if it wants B.C. product to be available to B.C. consumers. Specifically, what that support will look like is not clear.

Even though food prices have risen in the neighbourhood of seven per cent since the beginning of the pandemic, that is not enough to support smaller meat processors.

Mainstream farm media continually feature articles of genetic improvements to enhance growth and keep costs of production low, or improve immunity to foreign diseases.

More, better technology is the cry. One piece of technology that might help ranchers would be the DNA testing which can be done in the field to determine the paternity of a calf. Knowing which bulls sire enough calves to pay their way as herd sires might be verify helpful. Studies have shown that in a large herd with many bulls, some breed 50 cows and others may breed next to none.

With a cow to bull ratio averaging 20- or 25-to one, quite a saving can be made by eliminating the “non-productive” bulls.

Another as yet unfulfilled promise is that of “no till” or “minimum till” seeding equipment that can seed into existing older or undesirable fields and pastures thus saving the cost of plowing, disking, harrowing seeding and packing at a cost of about $300 or more per acre.

There are at least three books out there on “lean farming” but I can’t comment on how lean ranchers can go until I look at these suggestions. I know many think they have shaved costs as much as they can. I believe that.

So, we have to find new cultural practices that either improve production or efficiency. One does have to have a sharp pencil to figure out which way to go on investing in new technologies.

Read more: RANCH MUSINGS: The road home from Lhoosk’uz (Kluskus)

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.