Conspiracies And Cattle

It’s hard not to conclude from the continued dilly-dallying over support for Manitoba’s cattle sector that this is part of a back-door attempt to downsize the country’s cattle herd.

First we had the Manitoba government saying helping producers feed their cattle is problematic because it might offend our export competitors. You can bet American policy-makers spent all of two seconds worrying about what the neighbours might think as they deliberated over COOL.

Now we have the federal government saying details of what, if anything, is coming cattle producers’ way will have to wait until officials “understand the full impacts of the excess moisture on the forage-feed situation for producers this year.”

It would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

It is the end of September. The province has just endured another rain-soaked week that, for those of us who are metrically disadvantaged, could easily be measured on the inches side of our rain gauge – not millimetres.

If you look across the fields on a sunny day in many parts of the province right now, you will see the shimmer of fully saturated soil beneath whatever crop canopy remains. Harvest in Manitoba is effectively on hold until freeze-up.

Judging from the bales sitting in water with green brush sprouting from their tops, to say whatever forage isn’t already in the yard will be of “low quality” is being kind. Unharvested swaths of cereals and forages are turning black and some have rotted beyond any prospect of salvage.

Standing crops may still be combined, and in all likelihood, there will be an ample supply of feed grains available this winter. But will farmers be able to find enough roughage, especially if they have to wait until November to look for it?

Granted, governments must always be concerned about moral hazard, as in, giving money to people who don’t really need it. But this is morally asinine.

We’re not just talking about livelihoods here. We are talking about live animals that either need to have a secure feed supply in place for winter or be sent for slaughter.

Which brings us back to conspiracy theories. The Canadian cattle industry expanded rapidly through the 1990s – some say, too far, too fast. Producers have struggled to regain profitability in the wake of BSE in 2003, the rising value of the Canadian dollar and the U. S. decision to bring in country-of-origin labelling.

It is common for economic strategists to conclude the best way forward is to rationalize – weed out all the small, the old and the independent and let the big get bigger.

Governments have been paying out big bucks to help the hog industry accomplish that in an orderly fashion.

If the current attitude among federal and provincial governments prevails, the downsizing of the cattle herd will be anything but orderly. It will be chaotic and messy. The other difference is, the cost will be borne by individual cattle farmers and their communities.

Why the different approaches? You could argue it’s because cattle farmers owe less money. Cattle have typically been part of an integrated farm operation and expansions have tended to be financed by last year’s calf crop.

The hog industry’s rapid expansion relied heavily on debt financing to build expensive capital-intensive structures, which culminated in crippling cash flow pressures when markets dropped, but which also gave the hog sector friends in powerful places when the call for help went out.

As well, despite the relative strength of the Canadian banking system through the global recession, letting lenders take the hit would have been bad optics at a time when banks worldwide were collapsing.

Conspiracy theories are just that, theories. And the notion of a conspiracy implies that the people behind it have a plan. Governments may not have a conscious one to rationalize the cattle industry, but if they have an unconscious one, it’s time to realize it.

Whether it is by ineptitude or design, the results of ongoing delays will be the same. And that’s simply unacceptable.

Good Response

Manitoba’s livestock sector and Keystone Agricultural Producers teamed up to provide a reasoned response to allegations published by an animal welfare group recently.

It was important they respond. A recently released study from Kansas State University found that consumers do in fact respond to media attention to animal welfare issues by eating less meat. And the negative backlash prompted reduced consumption of all meat, not just the species targeted by the publicity.

How farmers responded matters too.

Their letters to the editor in the province’s main daily paper presented their farmers’ perspective forcefully, but in a way that respects differing views in the broader community.

It was an approach that encourages dialogue, rather than one that tries to discredit dissenters. Job well done. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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