When Manitoba’s new agriculture minister spoke up this July, during a tour of the Manitoba Forage and Beef Initiative, he made a bold statement.
He said he wanted to see the provincial cattle herd hit pre-BSE numbers inside of a decade, a goal that would see the number of cattle in Manitoba roughly double.
“When I look at our numbers we were at about 750,000, at our high, when we had our best beef numbers,” Ralph Eichler said at the time. “Our cows now are down to just over 400,000, we want to see that grow and get back to where we were.”
Between the wishing and reality though are a lot of details that need to be worked out, numbers that need to be crunched and obstacles to overcome. That’s why the Manitoba Beef Producers (MBP) has been on a mission during its fall meeting season to talk to producers about just what needs to happen.
Brian Lemon, MBP’s general manager, says it’s a lofty goal, with just 485,000 cows in the province now, including dairy animals. Adding another 350,000 or so won’t just happen overnight, it’s going to take planning and creating the right conditions, said Lemon.
“With prices the way they are right now it is going to be a hard number to get to. Nothing attracts entrance to an industry like profits and if we can find a way to bring some profit to this industry, I don’t think 750,000 head is out of the question,” Lemon said. “Bringing profitability to the industry is the key to everything, having existing producers being willing to grow their herds and for young producers to want to get into the industry. But, the profitability needs to be stable and producers need to have confidence in it.”
When making his announcement in July, Eichler acknowledged there was work to be done within the sector to make this a feasible goal.
“At the end of the day we want to see an increase in cow numbers. We are situated perfectly for grazing cattle in Manitoba, so let’s take advantage of that opportunity,” Eichler said. “There are things that we can do as government to help young people get involved. We could look at financial incentives and there are some now but not at the extent where I think they need to be, in particular for the beef industry.”
Following the announcement, MBP began a number of industry consultations and has spoken with Eichler and other government members to determine what they had in mind to reach this goal.
“Coming out of those meetings one of the things we promised to do was go out and talk to our members and we decided to include this discussion with our fall district meetings to get a sense from our membership, what are the issues, hurdles, and solutions,” Lemon said.
At the District 7 meeting held in Birtle on Nov. 10, discussion leaned towards the need to make the sector more profitable, develop better risk management tools, establish a labour strategy and increase lobbying efforts for agriculture education to better secure consumers.
“It is hard to attract new producers into the industry when there is such instability with prices and profit. A lot of the younger generations have also watched producers struggle, having to get off-farm jobs just to sustain the farm, this is not something that is appealing to them,” said Larry Gerelus, cattle producer from Shoal Lake.
MBP members also identified the need for the sector to formulate a labour strategy that would be capable of developing a pool of qualified labour.
“Producers want the option to take the day off and that is not feasible with the lack of labour options we have today. There is a need for a better system and a better way to get qualified labour,” said Ed Maybawiuk, a cattle producer from Roblin.
Another key issue was access to more acres. After a number of years of flooding throughout the province, some grazing lands have been lost to the onslaught of water.
“Depending on the region, six out of the last nine years we have been flooded out. That is the kind of stuff that gets in the way of having confidence in earning a living,” Lemon said. “To grow the herd we need more producers, producers with bigger herds and more acres. We have lost acres to cropping and flooding. So, how do we get those acres back? If we can get those acres back, we can bring the price of land down, which will make it much easier for new producers to become established.”
Lemon believes the timeline Eichler has laid out is realistic, but says there is no point in reaching the goal if it is not done in a sustainable manner.
“You don’t change regulations overnight, you don’t grow the herd overnight, and so the eight- to 10-year time frame is probably fairly realistic,” Lemon said. “But, it is important to do this right. You don’t want to spike our cattle herd without markets for them, without infrastructure around it and without a sustainable base.”
Throughout the 14 MBP district meetings, a poll was conducted in order to provide the provincial government with feedback.
The poll included questions regarding current farm sizes, herd numbers, factors affecting producers’ ability to expand and also gave attendees a chance to express the three tools they would find most valuable in expanding their herd.
MBP will compile the poll results and continue discussions with the provincial government on how to move forward.
“This will be a challenge but we are happy to have a partner in government that is looking positively and is looking to grow our industry because that is a good thing. It is good to have big goals and have something to work towards,” Lemon said.