COVID-19 no cause for course change on protein, says ag-minister Pedersen

Animal protein a likely weak spot and more agronomic support needed for peas to fill growing demand

Pea production is still viewed somewhat skeptically by many Manitoba producers.

Ag Minister Blaine Pedersen says he doesn’t anticipate any changes to Manitoba’s protein strategy despite the adversity of COVID-19.

“It is progressing very well,” he told the Co-operator. “I don’t really foresee any changes.”

The strategy, with the vision of making Manitoba North America’s protein supplier of choice by 2025, rolled out last September.

Its goals include attracting investment, including $1 billion in plant protein-processing investment and $500 million in new animal production and processing investment. The strategy also set goals of leading North America in plant protein extraction research and development, and increasing animal protein processing and production by 35 per cent.

Why it matters: The Manitoba Protein Advantage strategy, now a year old, sees Manitoba as a protein leader, but the animal protein half of the equation is struggling to stay afloat.

In January, the province announced it would form a protein consortium of experts in fields related to agriculture, sustainability and food processing. According to a January 21 news release, the board includes Neil Cunningham, director of Climate and Clean Technology; Emma McGeough, professor of agricultural and food sciences from the University of Manitoba; Emily Murray, general manager of Cargill’s McDonald’s beef patty business, and several others including representatives from the pork industry and Ducks Unlimited.

This board is meeting regularly and is planning a protein summit for February, Pedersen said.

Bill Grueul, CEO of Protein Industries Canada, addresses reporters January 10 as Jim Carr, (centre) Prime Minister Trudeau’s special representative for the Prairies, and Merrit Functional Foods co-CEO Ryan Bracken look on. photo: Geralyn Wichers

Plant protein has been a feather in the province’s cap, as pea-processing giant Roquette and pea and canola processor Merrit Functional Foods both have plans to open newly constructed facilities in Manitoba this fall.

These two companies are getting worldwide inquiries about plant proteins, said Pedersen.

In June Prairie Fava, a Glenboro-based fava bean processor, got funding through Protein Industries Canada to expand its facility and to work with Roquette to develop new uses for fava bean protein.

Keystone Agricultural Producers president Bill Campbell praised the province for initiating the protein strategy and said plant protein processing and demand is progressing well.

“I think there’s still some hiccups to deal with production-wise,” he said.

Producers need more agronomic support before they can feel confident adding peas to their rotations, he said.

Campbell said while he’s heard reports of good pea crops this year, this is likely due to a dry year. “Normal” Manitoba growing conditions could pose a greater challenge.

He’s also heard of producers who had good crops, but had to spray fungicide twice.

“If it works, that’s fine. But if it does not work or address the root rots and disease pressure, you’ve just got added expense,” he said. “I would suggest that there’s not a lot of confidence in widespread, commercial production yet.”

The strategy’s animal protein goals are likely to prove challenging, said Campbell. It’s become difficult to make a living farming livestock.

“It’s the economics that have dictated what is going on in livestock production,” said Campbell. He said many beef producers take on second jobs to stay afloat. While young people are making a go at cattle farming, there are far more profitable industries for them to go into, he said.

Last year, drought conditions in some parts of Manitoba caused feed shortages, which led to some producers asking the province for relief through the AgriRecovery framework. Feed shortages continued in some parts of Manitoba this year.

Closures of JBS and Cargill processing plants early in the pandemic caused backlogs in cattle production and prices plummeted. Some producers were forced to hang on to cattle longer than expected, which raised feed costs.

“For folks who always sell their calves, there are some really hard decisions,” Manitoba Beef Producers president Dianne Riding told MarketsFarm, a division of Glacier FarmMedia, at the end of August. “We’re crossing our fingers that one of our plants doesn’t go down again.”

Dakota Tipi First Nation took part in the Roquette groundbreaking near Portage la Prairie Sept. 28, 2017. Chief David Pashe (r) passes the pipe to Premier Brian Pallister. photo: Allan Dawson

Manitoba’s beef herd has plateaued or is on the decline, said Carson Callum, general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers.

Following plant closures in Alberta, small provincially inspected plants in Manitoba also backed up as producers raced to meet a local demand for meat, Callum said.

While there’s been talk of adding more small processors in Manitoba, it’s not likely to come quickly.

“You have to be able to cash flow this and so it’s just not going to change on a whim,” said Pedersen.

Hog producers have also taken a series of hard hits related to the pandemic. The latest came when cases of COVID-19 popped up at Brandon’s Maple Leaf Foods processing plant. The plant remained open as of September 10.

To get ahead of a potential backlog, independent hog producers diverted hogs from the facility to Olymel in Red Deer, Alberta and, to a lesser degree, to HyLife in Neepawa.

Bill Alford of [email protected]’s Marketing estimated shipping to Alberta cost producers about $15 per hog, plus the loss of a $20-per-head premium Maple Leaf was offering.

“It doesn’t take long to be a significant number,” Alford said.

Campbell said he doesn’t see how the province will reach its animal protein goals without a change to a better economic model for livestock production. Packers have been making money during the pandemic while producers suffered, he said.

The province should have better forage insurance, and improve access to Western Livestock Price Insurance (WLPIP), he said.

WLPIP has been called useful but expensive by cattle producers, who foot the entire bill of the premiums, unlike that of crop insurance. WLPIP also has a hog component but it has seen almost no use in Manitoba because of high premiums.

Cattle producers should also be recognized for the ecological goods and services they provide on pasture land, said Callum.

The protein strategy includes plans to maintain and strengthen grasslands, Callum said. The province needs to ensure that those lands don’t get chewed up or sold off right away, he said.

The strategy needs to build on a strong foundation, said Campbell.

“We need to ensure that the producers and production are a key component of this,” he said. “Roquette, if it doesn’t have access to peas, it’s got an empty building.”

About the author


Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.



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