Panel discusses risks and rewards in Canada’s beef industry

Beef industry panel discusses lessons learned and the path forward in the wake of COVID-19

A few weeks ago some of the key players in Canada’s beef industry sat down for a virtual roundtable to explore sustainability in the sector.

Moderated by Canadian Cattlemen editor Lisa Guenther, the hour-long panel consisted of Maryjo Tait from Celtic Ridge Farms, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) president Bob Lowe, Jarrod Gillig, vice-president of operations for Cargill and Trystan Halpert, director of operations at Chop Steakhouse and Bar in Toronto.

Why it matters: The pandemic has brought some opportunity for the food sector through increased awareness, but it’s also increased the risk for the Canadian beef industry.

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Putting it mildly, 2020 has been a challenging year for the supply chain and Canada’s agricultural market. Looking at the challenges seen over the last few months, members of the panel shared an array of perspectives on the risks and opportunities facing the different cross-sections of the beef industry going forward.

The farm view

Adaptability has been essential for Maryjo Tait and her husband, Rob, who own and operate Celtic Ridge Farms, a 100-head cow-calf operation southwest of London, Ont.

The farm takes a somewhat different value-chain path from the typical commercial beef operation. The farm usually works with small, local processors, Tait said, and finishes roughly 90 per cent of their cattle on farm.

Before the pandemic, their main market was selling wholesale to local restaurants and vendors. Since March, that has changed. Their business has done a “360-degree pivot,” Tait said, and has now shifted to more direct customer sales after most of their wholesale market suddenly disappeared.

Processing risk

In Bob Lowe’s opinion, the pandemic has brought some opportunity for the food sector through increased awareness, although it’s also increased the risks for Canadian beef producers.

“From our business point of view, the biggest threat… is if a packer has to slow down or close in the so-called second wave,” said Lowe, co-owner of Bear Trap Feeders and president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).

It’s a problem that the beef sector already faced this year after major plants — Cargill’s High River facility and the JBS plant in Brooks — either temporarily shut down or slowed production. Combined, the two Alberta plants make up an estimated 70 per cent of Canada’s beef capacity.

The impact on the beef industry was swift. Cattle supplies quickly backed up, while feeders reported some losses of hundreds of dollars per head.

More information needed

The need for accurate and reliable information was another problem brought forward by panellists.

Jarrod Gillig, vice-president of operations at Cargill, said that they were able to utilize some measures from other Cargill locations around the world. Early measures included temperature checks for people entering plants, questionnaires about symptoms and installing barriers. One thing they’d likely do differently is have a more readily available supply of masks, he said.

Industry groups have lauded the precautions introduced at the company’s major plant in Alberta, although the company also came under fire from the union representing its workers after reopening following a two-week shutdown this spring.

Food service

The restaurant industry is another sector that’s been thrown a few curveballs.

Chop Steakhouse and Bar’s team had to adjust quickly to the risks of COVID-19. Trystan Halpert, director of operations at Chop says there’s been a constant need to develop new health and safety protocols.

“That’s been quite challenging and it’s ever changing. So it’s almost a full-time job to keep track of what’s new in the news and what’s mandated by local health regions across the country,” said Halpert.

Opportunities

But it’s not all bad news.

For new opportunities, the panel sees a huge need for communication tools and collaboration throughout the industry’s different sectors.

Halpert and others on the panel said there’s a growing need for reliable and accurate information coming from the industry itself, rather than waiting for others to promote Canadian products and practices.

They all expressed interest in the idea of more companies within the beef sector working together to promote Canadian beef and increase awareness for key issues in the sector.

The full-length video of the panel discussion is available on the Ag in Motion Discovery Plus website.

About the author

Reporter

Spencer Myers

Spencer Myers grew up on a beef and grain farm in Belmont, Man. He is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Agriculture Diploma Program and Red River College’s Creative Communications program. Adding to his on-farm experience, Spencer has worked as an agronomist-in-training at Zeghers Seed Inc. in Holland, Man., and a conservation technician with Ducks Unlimited’s Native Plant Solutions division. Spencer is currently based in Winnipeg.

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