New CCA president to focus on processing, foreign trade efforts

For the first time in decades, a Manitoba rancher has risen to the top job of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Cow-calf producer Martin Unrau, a CCA vice-president, was recently acclaimed as president and will replace Alberta’s Travis Toews.

Along with wife Roxie, son Garett, and a part-time employee, Unrau runs 500 head on Bar 88 Ranch and crops 1,000 acres south of MacGregor.

A call last week found Unrau, former head of the provincial cattle association, in the midst of calving and seeding preparations, as well as planning a run to Brandon to pick up mineral.

“It’s enjoyable, but it’s busy,” said Unrau.

The cattle business has been riding high amid a strong recovery post-BSE, but as CCA president he said he plans to keep a watchful eye on maintaining the country’s slaughter and processing infrastructure. Rebuilding the national herd will see more heifers retained as breeding stock and that will put more pressure on the critically important downstream side of the business, he said.

The continued viability of the country’s two largest killing plants, XL Foods and Cargill, is a big concern, as are the smaller 200- to 300-head plants that also play a big role in the supply chain.

“That’s a big deal to me,” he said. “For the next few years, there’ll be a bit of a crunch on, and we hope these guys can stick around. We’ll have to deal with it as it comes along.”

Opinions seem to vary widely within the industry regarding plans for a government-backed, federally inspected Winnipeg killing plant, but so long as it can sustain itself as a going concern, Unrau said he is in favour of it because it is needed “desperately.”

“Government has proven in the past that when they own things, they screw it up,” he said. “But any viable plant that would be a benefit to producers — I’m in favour of it.”

Over the past five years, Unrau has been heavily involved in the CCA, serving as chair of the Foreign Trade committee, co-chair of the Animal Health committee, and as a member of the Domestic Agriculture and Policy regulation committee.

But he said his first love is ranching, and it’s all he’s ever wanted to do. But in 2004, he opted to become involved in the “political” side of the business despite the time commitment and extensive travel demands. The sacrifice has been worth it, he said, adding efforts to open up foreign markets have convinced him of the need for building trade links with as many countries as possible.

The need for compromise, or “give and take,” is a big part of his philosophy, he added.

“There’s more to it than just raising the calf, feeding the steer, putting it on the truck and making sure it gets to the processing facility,” said Unrau.

“The reason I’m in this game of politics is to ensure that people and governments understand how beneficial we are to this country.”

The opportunity for foreign travel that comes with the job has opened his eyes to new perspectives – and some surprises.

In Belgium, for example, Unrau, who is of Dutch Mennonite descent, discovered that he could converse in his fluent low German with the Flemish farmers.

It’s nice to be bilingual, but he admits that French would be handier in his new job.

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