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6 reasons why Alberta is beef-industry central

Canada is blessed with an abundance of rich, fertile agricultural land – and Alberta is famous for its beef. So why, in our land of plenty, is Alberta the undisputed centre of this industry that feeds our people and our economy? Here are six reasons:

1. History

As early as the 1860s, the Canadian government was keen to encourage entrepreneurial movement to the ‘new frontier’ in the west. These were called the ‘free grass’ years because an individual or ranch company could lease up to 100,000 acres for the rent of one cent, per acre, per year for up to 21 years. They were also allowed to import cattle from the United States duty-free.

2. Geography

Those early settlers found a wealth of fertile grasslands in the sheltered, well-watered valleys of southern Alberta. These nutritious lands provided an environment where their cattle could be released and left to fend for themselves.

3. Climate

With Chinook winds tempering the effects of winter, southern Alberta is unique in providing year-round access to pasture for cattle. Most years, Alberta’s early ranchers found the winter conditions favourable for cattle, which were able to find shelter during the colder days, and grass whenever the snow melted.

4. Resilience and innovation

During those early days, most ranchers relied on the ability of their cattle to survive a Canadian winter without assistance. But brutal winters in 1882-83, 1886-87 and 1906-07 decimated many herds and ruined countless businesses. Rather than give up, many ranchers learned from these challenges, and even thrived – ranchers such as Lachlin McKinnon, who made grain a standard addition to his livestock’s diet at the turn of the century.

Winter shelter, and irrigation systems were among other innovations that enabled ranchers in Alberta to protect and nurture their cattle.

In 1888, Commissioner L.H. Herchmer of the North West Mounted Police was quoted as saying:

All ranchers, no matter what class of stock is their speciality, now cut large quantities of hay, and nearly all have shelter of some description for weak stock. Some of the more advanced cow-men are now yarding up their calves in the fall and feeding all winter. It will be found most beneficial to both calves and cows, and the calves of the following season will also be stronger.

As these ranchers learned about shelter, hay and grain for their cattle, so they created a precursor to today’s cattle feeding industry.

5. Research and training

As the beef industry evolved, schools of agriculture in all the western provinces engaged in research in animal science and husbandry, and range management. At agricultural schools in Olds, Vermilion and Claresholm, cattle rearing and stock feeding tests began as early as 1913. Professorial staff from these schools lectured at agricultural meetings and served as livestock judges at county fairs and shows.

6. Technology

Today, cattle feeding is a sophisticated business, using many different technologies to help feed Canadians. One of the most vital technologies is irrigation, which was developed as early as the 1890s, before Alberta even became a province.

Today, about 680,000 hectares are irrigated in Alberta, which represents about five per cent of Alberta’s arable land, and almost 70 per cent of Canada’s total irrigated area. That irrigation infrastructure also provides water to processors, intensive livestock operations, towns and villages, wildlife habitats and recreation facilities.

You can read more about irrigation in ‘Alberta’s Irrigation – A Strategy for the Future’ (PDF). And to learn more about how Alberta’s cattle feeding industry looks today, check out our ‘Feedlot 101 infographic’.

Stay tuned for a future post in which we will continue to explore the history of Alberta’s beef sector, and how the cattle feeding sector evolved.

3 challenges facing Alberta’s beef industry

Beef is big business in Alberta – but like any business owners, ranchers and cattle feeders must navigate regulations, market conditions, public opinion and much more in their bid to stay competitive and profitable.

This was the subject of a recent article in Alberta Beef Magazine, in which ACFA chair Martin Zuidhoff and vice-chair Ryan Kasko were asked about cattle feeders’ new and old challenges. Read more

Taking the heat off meat: the truth about GHG emissions

Global warming is a hot topic these days, and livestock producers sometimes get a bad rap for their contribution. In fact, the methane released by cattle through their digestive process is a factor oft quoted in the media. Read more

A day in the life of a feedlot operator

Have you ever wondered what goes on in a cattle feedlot? You might be surprised to learn just how much work and organization is involved in managing thousands of head of cattle, and ensuring that each animal is fed, monitored and kept in a healthy, low stress environment.

For a taste of what a typical feedlot day looks like, join us for this beautiful video tour of Alberta feedlot, Kolk Farms Ltd. Enjoy the trip – and the lovely Alberta scenery!

As you can see, there’s always plenty to do – from ensuring that the cattle in each pen receive the correct feeding formulation, to moving cattle from one area to another, cleaning pens and moving hay.

If you enjoyed that video, check out this blog post to learn ‘five things you might not know about feedlots’.

4 stats and 4 facts about cattle feeders and the economy

Drive anywhere around Alberta, and you’ll see that familiar sight of rolling grain fields and pastures filled with cattle. They’re part of what makes this province so beautiful, but they’re also important for their role in feeding people and the economy. This week on this blog, we’re going to take a look at the financial contribution the sector, and in particular cattle feeding, makes to Alberta’s economy.

Four ways the cattle feeding business benefits all Albertans

Agriculture in Alberta is big business, and cattle feeding is an important part of that. Here are a few ways cattle feeders contribute to the economy:

  • Cattle feeders are responsible for 18 per cent of all agricultural production in Alberta, which totals over $5 billion.
  • Every $1 spent in the cattle feeding sector generated $2.40 for the province of Alberta as a whole.
  • Cattle feeding generated a production value of $1 billion. This represents a $355 million contribution to provincial GDP.
  • Cattle feeding employed (directly and indirectly across the beef value chain) some 12,000 people, generating $470 million in employment income.

Four interesting facts about that contribution

Waste not, want not.

Cattle feeders contribute to the economy by producing a product that has value (beef). But along the way, they also improve the value of other farmers’ products. They do this is by using feedstuffs (barley, wheat, corn, potatoes and even carrots) that fail to meet the grade for human consumption. If it weren’t for operations such as cattle feeders, all of this product would likely go to waste.

Adding value.

The importance of any industry to the economy is related to the amount of added value it generates in addition to the original product. In the beef industry, the cattle are bred right here in Alberta, and then, thanks to the presence of Alberta cattle feeders, they usually stay in the province throughout the production chain, until they are ultimately purchased by beef processors. Without question, beef is the most valuable value-added agriculture product that is produced in Alberta.

Exports.

Because we usually produce more beef than we can eat here in Canada, we are also able to export beef to places like the US, Mexico, Korea, and Japan. When that beef is exported, it commands a high price and boosts the provincial economy.

Healthy people, healthy economy.

The health and potential of any economy is directly related to the health, well-being, education and skills of its citizens. When people aren’t healthy, economic production goes down, and healthcare costs go up. Beef is a very good source of zinc, protein and iron, and part of a healthy and balanced diet. Beef fuels economic value that way too!

For more facts about feedlot operations, check out ‘Feedlot facts: five things you might not know’ and ‘Three things you should know about Canadian beef’.

Canadians want to know more about where their food comes from

Canadians have questions about their food. ‘How is it produced?’, ‘Is it safe?‘, ‘How are farm animals treated?’. The list of questions goes on. In fact, in a survey by Farm and Food Care Canada, 59 per cent of people said they wanted to know more about agriculture:

Read more

Feedlot people – veterinarian Lynn Locatelli

This is the second in our feedlot people series, and this week we meet Dr. Lynn Locatelli from Cattlexpressions. Lynn hails from New Mexico, U.S.A., but she’s a familiar sight in Alberta, where she consults with feedlots and other cattle operations on low stress cattle handling. Read more

Feedlot people: meet a cattle feedlot veterinarian

This is the first post in our Feedlot people series, and this week we’re meeting veterinarian Joyce Van Donkersgoed, the owner of Alberta Beef Health Solutions, in Picture Butte, Alberta.

Joyce grew up in southern Alberta, on a farm just east of Coaldale. Her parents ran a cow calf feedlot and hay/grain operation, and before that a dairy herd, so she grew up as immersed in the cattle world as is possible!

“When I was 12 years old I made my mind up I wanted to be a cow vet”, said Joyce, and she never waivered from that ambition. She trained as a veterinarian at the University of Saskatchewan, and later returned to complete her masters in veterinary science, with a clinical residency in beef cattle production medicine and epidemiology.

Helping discover better ways to care for cattle

Joyce van Donkersgoed

Today Joyce is well known in the industry as a teacher, author and researcher. In fact she collaborated on the Feedlot Animal Care Assessment Program (pdf), which we wrote about in last week’s blog post: New assessment tool to audit feedlot animal care.

“I love research because I love solving problems,” said Joyce. “We’re always trying to help our clients find better ways to do things, whether it’s a new vaccine, a better antibiotic or feed additive, or how we handle cattle. I’ve also been involved in building a lot of industry programs and training programs over the years. It’s a great feeling when you see your hard work pay off — when you’ve got through to someone, you’ve trained someone and they get it, and then they’re better at their job and the cattle are being better cared for.”

But research will always be a relatively small part of how Joyce spends her days. “I still go in the field,” she said. “It’s important to walk the walk because it’s hard for me to train staff or help my clients if I don’t understand what’s going on in the yard, and the only way I can do that is if I actually get dirty. I still do my share of calls.”

Over the years Joyce has found herself branching out from cattle, as one of her clients has a lamb feedlot and a ewe operation, but cattle will always be her passion. 

Joyce — a self-confessed workaholic — doesn’t have a great deal of free time, but what she does have is spent caring for her ageing parents, mowing her six acres of grass and enjoying her two chocolate labs. “I bought a piece of my Dad’s farm so that I could live close and they can still live in their own house. And my Dad can still get on his John Deere tractor, even though he probably shouldn’t, because he’s 89!”

Stay tuned for upcoming posts when we will meet more of the people of Alberta’s cattle feedlots.

Are feedlot operators prepared for an emergency?

In any industry there are two types of emergency – those that affect a single operator, and those that affect the entire sector. While the first can be devastating for the business involved, the second can have serious consequences for an entire industry, and for its contribution to the Canadian economy.

That’s why Alberta’s feedlot operators have produced a Feedlot Emergency Preparedness Plan. It’s a comprehensive tool to help cattle feeders prepare for, and respond to, an emergency that causes widespread losses across the cattle feeding industry.

To learn more about the tool, we spoke with Matt Taylor, of Livestock Intelligence. Matt is a specialist in animal health emergency management and consults on animal health systems and the broader livestock industry, and he coordinated the development of the tool.

Here’s what Matt told us:

Q: Why do feedlot operators need to prepare for a disease outbreak?

Matt: The tool was developed in response to a long-held feeling that, even though feedlot producers have done their best to protect against potential risks, they were not protected against the possibility of a major event impacting the sector as a whole. The goal is to give feedlot operators and their staff a tool that allows them to better prepare for such an eventuality. In reality, any such emergency will most likely be a disease outbreak, so that is the focus of the plan.

Q: How was the tool developed?

Matt: The first step was to form a steering committee to guide the process — a group of ‘gurus’ if you will — including people with knowledge of the veterinary profession as feedlot practitioners and from a regulatory perspective, emergency management professionals, and representatives from various service aspects and other segments of the industry itself, like Alberta Beef Producers and Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Then we identified the key activities that operators were going to be involved in, while the sector was being ‘hit’ by a major disease outbreak — everything from identifying something unusual and responding to that unusual event, and receiving confirmation from CFIA or Alberta Agriculture of a major foreign animal disease event, through to containment, stopping cattle movement, vaccination, depopulation and more. Then we just identified the steps involved in doing those activities at the feedlot. 

One of the last steps was quite significant actually, as it hadn’t been done in Canada’s beef sector before – we did a simulation exercise, with participation from CFIA, Alberta Agriculture, and Alberta’s Emergency Management Agency, testing these guidelines in scenarios that were as real as we could make them, in order to see where we needed to make some final revisions.

Q: Has the tool been tested in a real life emergency?

Matt: That’s part of the problem! When an event never happens, people often wonder why they should prepare for it. Canada’s beef industry has been very fortunate in not having had a major disease outbreak with sector wide impacts — not withstanding our experience with BSE, which has been significant. But BSE is a very atypical disease that doesn’t ‘spread’ or have ‘operational’ impacts upon a multitude of operations, though it certainly had widespread financial impacts.

Other sectors of Canada’s livestock industry have had major disease outbreaks that affected the whole sector – for instance PED and circovirus in the swine industry, and Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the poultry industry. But the reality is that there are diseases capable of having a much greater impact on Canada’s beef industry than any of these, or BSE. We know that, from observation of foot and mouth outbreaks in the UK and elsewhere.

So the short answer is: no, we’ve not tested these particular guidelines in a real-life outbreak. Hopefully we don’t have to. However, a few fire drills, a few false calls, would be a good thing so we could test our capacity to respond effectively. The task now is to steadily improve our guidelines so feedlot operators know how to respond effectively and are prepared to do so.

To learn about other initiatives spearheaded by the ACFA, check out these blog posts:

New assessment tool to audit feedlot animal care

Last week on this blog, we talked about the fact that cattle feeders are committed to high standards of animal care – we explained that it’s both good business sense, and the right thing to do. We also explained why it’s not enough for individual feedlot operators to know that their standards are high: Read more