Bigger and Better

Six years, countless hours of work and play, and many, many friends later, I am writing the closing paragraph of my chapter at Texas A&M University. This is a hard thing to write, right now, because it’s very difficult to imagine anywhere else on the planet as inspiring, challenging, rewarding, and just downright special as this campus. I have now officially finished my last semester of classes at Texas A&M, having spent 12 semesters here, and almost a full quarter of my life calling College Station my home. Forgive me, but I feel like this is a good time to reminisce.

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The members of the 2013 Texas A&M Meats Judging Team

So many times over the last six years, I have answered the question, ” What brought you all the way down to Texas A&M?” And despite the standard answer of, “The animal science program,” I actually really don’t know. All that can be said of the reason I ended up in central Texas is that God really does know what He is doing. Texas A&M is a place so unique, that Aggies have developed our very own method of attempting to describe the atmosphere here:

“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

There are so many reasons I love Texas A&M, I cannot write all of them down. Texas A&M is so much more than just a school in Texas. Coming from Alberta, I had no concept of the level of school spirit I would encounter- and I am not just talking about in sporting events. At home, it seems that it doesn’t matter so much what school you attended, it just matters whether or not you have a certificate or degree that says you learned something. That is not the case at Texas A&M. Here, it matters not that you went to school, but the “where” is vital. If that “where” is Texas A&M, you are following in the footsteps of World War heroes, leaders in business, energy, and agriculture, and national and international politics. Texas A&M boasts 450,000 alumni in one of the most dedicated and active alumni associations around- and we are dedicated and active because we have a deep-seated allegiance to a school which provided us with so much.

Where else do so many students come together to worship every week? Breakaway, at Texas A&M University.

Texas A&M is a special place because of the attitude of the Aggies on campus. Where else do you find 22,0000 college students lining up for hoes and shovels on a Saturday morning, so they can be a part of the largest college service day in the nation? Aggieland. Where else can you find thousands of students worshiping together every Tuesday night of the semester? Aggieland. What other school holds a memorial ceremony every month for those among us who have passed away? What other school has a reunion every year, where alumni and current students who have passed from our ranks are immortalized by echos of “Here” when the role is called? On whose hands but Aggies can you find class rings so worn and old that the original design is completely indistinguishable, yet, when seen by another Aggie, will prompt many handshakes, smiles, and tales of undergrad escapades? Only in Texas, and only in Aggieland.

I am a member of this fraternity of alumni, but as important as the network is, it still pales in comparison to the people I made this journey with. The friends I have made, all of whom, at some point or another, welcomed me into their homes and families and hearts with not even a second thought. These are the people I am leaving, even more than the school. While I will physically be far away from them, they will always be no more than a phone call, or a plane ride away. The young men and women I competed alongside on the collegiate meats team are more valuable to me than all of the money in the world, and the change they worked on me as a person is indescribable. The professors and teachers who ensured that my studies never got in the way of a proper education showed me that agriculture is hard, it is challenging, and it is thankless, but someone has got to do it. These are the people who truly equipped me to live a life that makes a dent, and these are the people who will live forever in my heart as some of the most honest, hardworking, kindest, smartest, and faithful friends and mentors I will ever know.

While I am incredibly saddened by the promise of departure, I am heartened knowing that Texas A&M is something I will always be proud of. Leaving is so much harder than it needs to be, but Texas A&M has equipped me to enter the world and make a difference, change my community, and challenge the status quo. I entered A&M with a mind to farm quietly, but that plan was shaken up and torn to pieces. This world demands much of us, it demands that we do what we are enabled to do to make it better and keep moving forward. Texas A&M has prepared me for the highs, but even more, it develops a drive in all it’s students to march through the low points. Challenges are universal, and we will all encounter them. A&M has encouraged me to power through them, to deal with them, and to succeed despite them. How? Well, there’s a spirit can n’er be told that emboldens Aggies around the world to live out the six characteristics that define Texas A&M:

Excellence – set the bar.

Integrity – character is destiny.

Leadership – follow me.

Loyalty – acceptance forever.

Respect – we are the Aggies, the Aggies are we.

Selfless Service – How can I be of service?

From the day I stepped foot on campus as a freshman, I was held to these standards. At that time, they were more extreme than anything I had ever held myself to, and they challenged me, and scared me. However, now, two degrees and six years later , they have enabled me to face the world at large honourably, with my head held high, and they have pushed me on to bigger and better things.

Thanks, and gig ’em, Ags.

Feeding the 9

The United Nations expects the human population of planet earth to reach 9.7 billion– billion with a “B”- people by the year 2050.

That’s a lot of people.

Over the years, especially the last ten or so, it seems that we have become more and more aware of the fact that we cannot currently supply  uniform, sufficient nutrition to the current human population. This is a problem, as that means that every day, people all over the world are dying of malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiency, and starvation (I recently learned that malnutrition and starvation are, in fact, very different phenomenons). It becomes an even larger problem when we consider that we need to substantially ramp up the production of nutritious food by about 50% over the next 33 years to meet the expected demand.

I believe that beef and other animal-sourced foods (ASF) can play an integral and essential part of providing adequate nutrition to our booming population. Recently, at the International Livestock Congress in Houston, Texas, I was able to hear from several leading researchers, representing the World Bank, FAO, and other global entities. They vocally encouraged the mix of students and researchers at the congress to pursue new research to improve the production of ASF to help increase the nutrition available around the world. Their reasons may have been preaching to the choir in that setting, but I thought I would reiterate them here:

  1. Animal source foods are nutrient dense. Per unit, plant sourced foods cannot compare with the amount of sheer nutrition (protein, fats, minerals and vitamins) supplied by ASF. In many instances, calories are not insufficient in an area- starchy crops supply enough sheer energy for many people around the world. However, those calories are rather empty.
  2. Animal sourced foods can be  produced in areas where crops do not grow. I know I am a beef guy, and I am partial to the efficiency of ruminants (large and small) to convert the most meager of rations to usable products. However, even I must admit that in certain areas of the world, there is simply not enough vegetation of any quality, or water to support the existence of ruminant animals (think: Deserts of North Africa). However, chickens and other fowl are more impervious to a lack of vegetation and make excellent use of small insects, seeds and other inedibles to produce eggs and meat of very high quality. They can be inexpensive and easy to care for as well.
  3. Animal sourced foods can be an effective means of water distribution. Stick with me here: We all have heard that animals are too water expensive, per unit of production, for many dry areas around the world. However, theory states that if we can increase production in other, more water-rich regions, we can “ship” water to other parts of the world in the form of ASF. Thus, the balance of water between dry and wet areas can be averaged.

Animals can serve as a vital part of supplying necessary nutrients to a growing population, and it’s up to me and my generation of farmers, ranchers, and researchers to figure out the best way to get it done.

 

Reverse culture shock

Western privilege has lead to the consumer demanding that Canadian farms revert to older, less efficient methods of farming- organic, natural, grassfed, etc. While these make the north american consumer feel better for themselves, it also works to eliminate potential exports to nations like Rwanda, because less food can be grown using these expensive, inefficient methods. At the end of the day, we all are responsible for ensuring that the world can eat.

Allison Finnamore

t hit hard and fast. I still have it and I have no idea how long it will last. I kind of hope it lasts forever.

I woke up yesterday morning, comfortable in my own bed and thought how much I missed my pillow while I was in Rwanda. I grabbed a quick shower then struggled to find just the right shirt to wear before running an errand. I used the toilet before I left the house, flushed, washed my hands then used the Starbucks app on my iPhone to place my latte order. As I got into my SUV parked in the attached garage, I wondered what we would have for supper and whether I should stop by the grocery store and pick something up.

Then I started to cry.

I have reverse culture shock.

The comparison of the excess in which we live in contrast to the poverty…

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Do What You Love

During our weekly bible study meeting last Tuesday morning, one of the gentlemen in my small group asked if we thought the statement, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life!” was accurate. The table had about 6 men sitting at it, two of whom are well into their careers and the other four (including myself) in various degrees of preparing to enter the workforce (grad school, seminary, undergraduate, etc).

Immediately, I jumped in- the resounding and unquestionable answer I have to the inquiry is yes, if you find something that you can love to do, then you’ll never work a day in your life. I plan to go into the beef industry in some capacity, but at the end of the day, I will always come home to find that I have a few cows around. I told my bible study that a farmer can work 365 days a year, caring for their cattle. Almost every one of those days will be hard, dirty, too hot, too cold, injurious, unpleasant, and by all means no cushy office chair in an air conditioned building. However, I said, there will be maybe only one day a year, one out of three hundred and sixty-five days, where a farmer will be walking up to the house, as the sun is descending in the west, and look out across their property to see a pasture full of baby calves running through the tall, green June grass, the designated babysitter cow watching closely, while the others are spread out sporadically across the field. As the sun turns everything a brilliant shade of gold, that farmer will not care about the frostbite they received pulling a calf in February, the twisted ankle in March climbing up into the tractor to feed, the sliced finger from opening a hay bale with a dull knife (they are never sharp…), or the three days spent in the barn cleaning calving stalls, the midnight run to the vet clinic for some medication for a bloating steer, the stress of watching the cattle markets fall and rise and fall again, the missed sleep, late dinners, early mornings, and all those frozen waterers… All of those inconveniences, all of those hardships and injuries and wear and tear and missed meals and missed social events… All of that suddenly fades away. And I know that this is exactly why I am here.

This is the passion that I have for cattle- I could work without pause for 365 days, and I would complain and belly ache and whine, but then one random day in June, late in the afternoon, it suddenly paid for itself, and it only took a heartbeat.

I would encourage all of you to find what you love to do- something that isn’t easy, may not make you rich, might age you a little faster than you would like- but something that, at least for a moment every now and again, makes you so happy that it was all worth it.

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Fall of a Giant

To be perfectly honest with you, I think they were pushed.

Most all of you involved in the agricultural industry in Western Canada have seen, by now, the news coming from Western Feedlots in High River, Alberta. For those of you unfamiliar with what is going on, the following is a statement made by Western Feedlots on Wednesday, 21 September 2016:

Western Feedlots Ltd.’s shareholders have decided to voluntarily wind down cattle ownership and cattle feeding operations. Western will continue to feed and market the existing cattle and after they are marketed, Western will be suspending feedlot operations. Western will not be hiring employees, or purchasing feed grain or feeder cattle after that time. Western will continue farming operations for the foreseeable future. Western’s shareholders chose this course of action due to the current high risk/low return environment in cattle ownership, which is inconsistent with shareholder objectives. In addition to strong headwinds in the cattle industry, the poor political and economic environment in Alberta are also contributing factors to this decision. Western would like to thank all our employees, suppliers and customers for their years of dedication and support and their continued understanding and cooperation.-Western Feedlots, Inc.

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Arial view of Western Feedlot’s High River, Ab location

Western Feedlots has been operating in the cattle feeding business since 1958. Largely, they are credited with being pioneers in the industry in Canada. At the time of their announcement on Wednesday, they operated on three locations (High River, Mossliegh, and Strathmore, Alberta) and had a one time capacity greater than 100,000 head. Over the last two years, operations at the Strathmore location have been wound down and the lot has been largely empty. CEO of the company, Dave Plett, has committed that farming operations for the company will continue for the foreseeable future, and commented that, if conditions should become more favourable, cattle feeding activities will be restarted.

The agricultural community is reeling from the loss of one of the single largest cattle feeding operations in Canada, and the effects of the closure of three large feedlots will only become more apparent as existing cattle are slowly sold over the next few months. Chief among these concerns as western Canada starts its fall weaning run is where ~100,000 head of freshly weaned cattle will go. Last year, Western Feedlots purchased cattle from across the country and fed them out for slaughter. That market has just completely and suddenly dried up. Second major issue coming down the pipeline concerns the availability of live cattle to supply two large slaughterplants in southern Alberta (High River, owned by Cargill, and Brooks, operated by JBS Foods Canada). Between the two plants, approximately 8,ooo head of cattle are killed every day, and the loss of Western Feedlots constitutes a major chunk of their supply chain. The ripple effect of the closure of these three feeding locations is somewhat frightening. This is not to mention, even, what new market cereal farmers will need to find for feed quality wheat and barley in the region. 100,000+ head of cattle consumed a lot of feed over the last few decades, and many farmers will be left without an apparent purchaser in the fall of next year.

The issue behind all of this is twofold and cited by interviews with Mr. Plett: The current conditions of the cattle markets in North America mean that cattle purchased as weaned calves have been losing as much as $600 per animal over the last year. Cattle are currently trading in a market which forces a “buy high, sell low” scenario. Hopefully, the bottom of the market has been found, and things will rebound, but how quickly and to what profit levels remains to be seen.

Second, and even more concerning than expected highs and lows in commodity prices, Mr. Plett mentioned the current economic and political environment in Alberta. Alberta used to be home to what was coined the “Alberta Advantage,” a set of policies set forth by the Progressive Conservative party in years past which served to attract businesses and investments from regions all over the world. Alberta has, until recent months, been viewed as an economic powerhouse, and frequently led Canada in terms of economic growth and attractiveness to investors.Then, in April 2015, the 40+ year dynasty of the PC’s was broken by the NDP, who have wasted no time in implementing an unending number of ideological policies designed to “fix” Canada’s “embarrassing cousin.”  On January 1, 2016, the NDP party implemented Bill 6, which, according to Plett, has cost Western Feedlots an additional $1000 per employee, to pay for public, not private, employment insurance. To be clear, prior to January 1, 2016, all of Western’s employees were covered by private insurance. Bill 6 was rolled out with the best of intentions, to protect employees in agriculture, but it has had nothing but resistance and negative views since it was first proposed to Legislature. The government has been accused by many industry organizations of a failure to communicate with the industry, a failure to listen, and a failure to properly implement the bill. To further the pessimism in Alberta, the Notley regime has doggedly moved ahead with an expensive and ill advised tax on carbon, which, when implemented, will cost businesses dearly for such things as indoor heating and business vehicles. The NDP did not include a Carbon Tax in their 2015 election platform. Finally, the Province has recently recommitted to move ahead without delay on increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour, a price many business owners, large and small, have repeatedly stated is too high and will lead to reduced hours and job losses.

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Markets for weaned calves will feel the pinch, as will packing plants in Alberta.

My view on this? The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Western Feedlots was perhaps too accustomed to being allowed to do it’s own business, they were too used to predictable government with a knack for doing what was best for business in Alberta. While cattle prices have certainly been a major factor in their decision to close, price fluctuations are a given in the cattle industry. We are talking about a company that has been lot-feeding beef cattle since lot-feeding beef cattle began, and has lived through successive market ups and downs, including the BSE crisis in the previous decade. Western Feedlots has always been prepared for market fluctuations. What Western was not prepared for was a socialist government hellbent on ideology and a consequences-be-damned approach to implementation. The perfect storm has brewed, and the largest companies are usually the least adaptable, the slowest to implement counter-measures, and can be the hardest to fall.

I currently live in Texas, where I am going to school. While I threaten my mother with staying here when I think it will get me something (love you, Mom!) my ultimate goal is to participate in the beef cattle industry in Alberta. This current government’s stranglehold on the economy of the province is extremely concerning for young people, in any industry. I am worried about what will be left for us to rescue in 2019 at the next provincial election? I wonder what the fallout will be from thousands and thousands of agricultural employees and oilsands workers fleeing the province like refugees, for places like Saskatchewan and Manitoba? The possibility that Alberta’s fiscal conservatives might not wake up and join forces to guarantee a replacement of the NDP in 2019 genuinely keeps me awake at night. I would use this opportunity to implore the Wildrose and the PC parties to lay aside their petty arguments and disagreements and realize that, on order to keep young business people in the province, we need to get rid of the NDP. In order to preserve the businesswe have, we need to get rid of the NDP. Markets in all commodities rise and fall, and the successful businesses can handle that. No business, anywhere, should need to shut down as a result of governmental ideology.

Bill 6 Business

Yet again, I opened the electronic edition of the Calgary Herald on my iPad and was beholden to a large headline, stating “WCB Claims Double-Controversial safety legislation working as intended.” (You can read the article here.)

Oh great, thought I.

As it happens, my skepticism was confirmed just a paragraph in.  The premise of the article is, of course, in the headline. The problem is, of course, in Edmonton. The article states that claims by agricultural workers in the province have doubled over the same time period last year (Bill 6 came into effect January 1st, 2016, with great backlash from the farming sector).  While that may be very true, it rather goes without saying, if you follow a logical train of thought: ALL farm incidents must be handled, now, by the WCB. Ergo, any and all incidents which were handled by private insurance last year, are now processed by the province. Duh. Of course the claims have increased; the socialists in government have successfully removed the private sector from another area of “nasty profits.”

This logic is mentioned in the article, however, not until the ending paragraphs, where opposition MLA’s voice this observation.  The government has neglected to release numbers concerning the quantity of claims submitted to private insurance in the past. How convenient.

In addition to some straight-up sketch numbers (lies, damn lies, and statistics, anyone?), the reasons for the claims vary from severe, worthy, claims of serious injury, which absolutely need to be compensated, to extremely common and minor scrapes and bruises. These scrapes and bruises, in many cases, require a little polysporin and a bandaid, if that, and it’s back to work you go. Rather, with the mandatory WCB, there are forms to fill out, government employees to please, and the potential for abuse of the system. Not everyone in this world wants to work (enter union bosses, stage left) and some will take a barb-wire scratch as an excuse to go on government-funded medical leave, clogging the system, wasting taxpayers money, and costing the employer. Where is the fairness in all of that? It seems the NDP have forgotten that this process costs money. But, in a provincial budget set to skyrocket by the billions during their accidental tenure, who cares for a few million here and there?

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It’s an oldie, but a goodie.