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.

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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. 

 

A Communications Breakdown

Earls

Luckily for Earl’s Restaurants, I was too preoccupied with final exams, term papers, and end-of-semester debacles to even think about having the time or energy to pump out a blog post concerning their now-overturned move to source Kansan beef.  Although I did not have the time to write about it, studying and procrastination go hand-in-hand, and so I was extremely up-to-date on all the happenings in my home province concerning the issue.

First off, I was extremely offended by the initial move Earl’s took in announcing their new source for beef would be “Certified Humane.”  On it’s own, this is a slap in the face to anyone who raises cattle that are not “Certified Humane,” as it implies that cattle not raised under the banner are beaten and tortured- which, of course, is simply not true.  Added to the label, though, was a caveat that Earl’s could not find sufficient supplies for “Certified Humane” beef in Alberta, or even Canada for that matter, and so had begun to purchase beef from Creekstone Farms, a company located in Kansas.  Not only did Earl’s slap me in the face, they offended an entire country of beef cattle producers, as they essentially said Canadian cattle were not raised well enough to grace the plates at their restaurants.  Just in case anyone is still wondering, that’s what set off every beef producer in Canada.

A second observation I had was that, despite the industry’s best efforts, there still seems to be an major communications blockade between consumers, retailers and beef producers.  After close to a decade of Agricultural Advocacy via social media, blogs, and outreach, the beef industry doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the education of the consumers.  That’s how I see it, and here’s how I came to that conclusion:

Earl’s released a statement early in the whole scandal that stated they had surveyed consumers in their restaurants.  The survey, according to the press release,  revealed that the people who eat at Earl’s Restaurants placed emphasis on the notion that they wanted their beef to be raised humanely.  It was very important to them, and this importance was the driving force behind Earl’s decision. Let me say, that the consumer wanting their beef to be treated in a humane way is not at all a bad thing.  However, where the real issue comes in is the consumer’s definition of humane treatment.

Humane treatment in the eyes of the consumers who responded to the survey at Earl’s included cattle not receiving antibiotics of any form or for any reason (metaphylactic or therapeutic).  Dave Bursey, protein purchaser for Earl’s, said the following in a video currently posted on Earl’s website:

“[The animals] receive no growth promotants, no medication, at all, in their lifespan…”

This, to me, is an obvious failure on our part as the cattle industry to properly explain what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We have succeeded, to a degree, in reassuring people that hormones and antibiotics are not dangerous to humans when we use them in beef cattle.  However, we have evidently failed to say that their use in the  cattle we raise is not harmful to the animals (in the case of hormone treatments) and is actually beneficial (in the case of antibiotic treatments).

Perhaps the best thing to come from the Earl’s scandal is the fact that their move placed the Canadian beef industry in the spotlight.  For our part, I think we did very, very well in getting in front of the issues and conquering the misinformation that Earl’s was (unintentionally) spreading.  We had multiple industry leaders on TV denouncing the move from Earl’s, and the reaction via social media was massive, rapid, and, most importantly, accurate and educational.  We have been given an open door with this situation, and I  feel that the industry handled it extremely well, especially given the fact that Earl’s recalled it’s decision and announced it will continue to source Canadian beef as a result of the push-back.

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, it seems difficult to keep consumers interested in learning about agricultural production once the “deliciousness” of a social justice movement has worn off.  I believe that, as an industry, we need to keep the pressure up just as we always have, but we need to increase the pressure on the media; we need to get the news stations reporting what we know to be true, rather than the thoughts of a reporter who is only looking for an attention grabbing headline.  I think the success of this whole mess is due in no small part to the presence of industry leaders and farmers on news broadcasts, morning show interviews and online articles. Those are the places where our presence is weakest, and I think, the places where we need to put pressure for accurate, informed, educated reporting.

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Humane Treatment is  firmly ingrained in the common production practices of the Canadian Beef Industry, even without certification.

Cowspiracy

At least they got the title correct: It is a cowspiracy, one to remove animal agriculture from the world.

The documentary (if one could use that term- it seems extremely ill-fitting) explores (poorly) the impact of beef cattle- and all animal agriculture- on the environment, basing their thoughts on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (2006) report.

The show starts with an exploration of why environmentalists and groups like Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, and other major NGO environmental watch groups appear to ignore the impact of livestock on the environment. Aside from a few mentions of deforestation in Brazil and some runoff issues associated more with lawn fertilizer than livestock production, major groups have been largely silent on the issue of livestock polluting the world. Why?

Well, the producer wants the public to believe that this is a result of politicking, that the farmers and ranchers of the United States (where most environmental groups are headquartered) petition the government to cover up negative information on the industry as a whole. First, if I may, this is one of the most hypocritical stances in existence: The producer is accusing the lobbyists for animal ag of doing exactly the same thing as lobbyists do for the environment. In western democracies functioning under a capitalistic economy, lobbying for the interests of industry is a given. No surprises there. We all do it: Oil and Gas, Animal Ag, Crop Production, Forestry, Auto Industry, the list is as long as the number of companies in the world. Why he would chose to showcase this is beyond me.

Perhaps the most glaring issue I see with this documentary, apart from sheer fear-mongering among consumers, is the fact that the filmmaker decided to cite old and inaccurate FAO statistics. The bulk of the information presented is cited from the 2006 FAO publication, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Admittedly, a black mark on an essential industry. However, a few years later, the FAO admitted that the information used to extrapolate their findings was “like comparing apples to oranges.” Evidently, the 2006 report took into account all emissions associated with livestock, their transportation, housing, and production of their feed. Fair enough. However, the error comes when the report did not account for the same information in the transportation industry, and only reported emissions caused by the use of vehicles, not their manufacture, or the production of fossil fuels, mining of ores or procurement of the myriad other elements that go into making cars, moving cars, and running cars. Thus, the ratios in the report were drastically skewed. In the 2006 report, the numbers looked far worse for Ag than they did for transport, and so it was easier for the producer to use this information, rather than the revised, updated information the FAO put out later.

Finally,  the filmmaker makes no attempt whatsoever to address the technological advances this industry has made in the last 50 years. We are producing the same amount of beef, using substantially fewer animals, much less feed, much less water, and, logically, much less land than we were even 20 years ago. Not only does the producer not talk about any of these items, he discounts the benefit that Genetically Modified Organisms (most used for animal feed or biofuel) have provided to the environment. Ignoring these facts is akin to saying cars are bad, never mind the economic, social and technological advancements that have occurred since their invention.

Cowspiracy is a conspiracy to instill fear of technology and advancement in agriculture among the moderate consumers of the world, by painting the animal agricultural industry with one environmentally destructive brush, and ignoring the leaps and bounds the industry has made over the last decades. Is environment an issue that the industry must address? Absolutely. Are we addressing it? Yes.

Thoughts on the IARC’s Meat Announcement

The news broke yesterday, and as expected, there was a great deal of hooplah from all sides: Red and Processed meats might cause cancer, according to experts at the International Agency of Research for Cancer (IARC).  Collectively, the animal agriculture industry groaned: this could turn people away from our product. What can we do to make sure that the general population understands IARC’s ruling, and doesn’t head for the hills and proceed to eat kale for the rest of their lives?

First, lets look at the actual ruling itself. You can access the actual release from IARC here. Altogether, it sounds pretty dire if you don’t know what you’re looking at (I’m no medical doctor, so I have no idea what all this means). However, the important takeaways are that red meats (red meat is classified as beef, pork, wild game and bison, fresh, without added preservatives) are classified in Group 2A, and that processed meats (this is a huge group:  from sausages and hot dogs to spam, ham and head cheese, anything which has anything at all added to it) are classified as Group 1. That doesn’t sound so terrible? Right? Right, but what do those groupings actually mean? I think this video below does a pretty succinct job of explaining thousands of pages of statistical reports in a little over 4 minutes. Watch it, and we will continue the discussion below:

So, no we know that even with a group 1 classification, its only more likely that high consumption of processed meats will cause colorectal  cancer IF an individual eats AT LEAST 50 grams of processed meats per day. Additionally, we now understand that a Group 2A classification means that there is a chance that the consumption of (or exposure to) these substances causes cancer. But ultimately there is not enough conclusive evidence to support a Group 1 classification. I hope you’re still with me, because the next part is the most important.

THERE IS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE FOR THESE CLAIMS, BASED ON THE RESEARCH THE IARC USED.

Unfortunately, most dietary studies for people include a method called self-reporting. Self reporting is used in survey format, and usually is phrased something like:

“In a given week, how many times have you consumed processed meats over the past year?”

  • Less than 3
  • 3-4
  • 4-5
  • more than 5

As you can see, these are far from highly accurate, and as such they create a lot of variation on the results of the study. Therefore, there is a good chance that the numbers the IARC used to reach their conclusions were wrong, or at the very least inaccurate. As a result of knowing this, what should your reaction, as a consumer, be to their announcement?

DO EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.

Running is good for you, but too much running can stress your knees and cause injury. Similarly, meat is good for you: it contains essential amino acids necessary to build and maintain muscle mass as well as key vitamins and minerals, some of which are unavailable in plant-based proteins. Make sense? I hope so. Please do continue to enjoy a hot dog every now and again, or a ham sandwich, or a nice, juicy steak. Just don’t do it three times a day, every day, and twice on Sundays.

Finally, I would encourage you to always do your own research. Remember that nothing stated by the media can be taken at face value, and that even organizations as large and powerful as the WHO and IARC are subject to the limitations of the data available to them. This is a highly contentious issue and there will be a lot of bantering from WHO, IARC, governments lobbyists and the general public. Through it all, it is important to remember that you’re still more likely to die of being hit by a bus than by bacon, and everyone has to die of something.

Why I Use Antibiotics

On October 20th, 2015, Subway announced via press release and social media that it would start phasing out the use of meat from animals treated with antibiotics. A few days later, after much outcry from the people who actually raise the meat that Subway serves, they updated their announcement for clarity.  There are many blogs so far that I have seen which directly address Subway, (Agriculture Proud is my favorite)  so I wanted to take a moment and clarify why animals receive antibiotics.

Antibiotics are a family of chemicals which have a general negative effect on organisms.  They differ greatly in their chemical make-ups and effective actions (some destroy cell membranes, others interfere with cell hormone regulation- just know that they are designed to kill specific cells). Antibiotics can be administered in a variety of ways, including via injection and orally, just as they are in humans. There does not seem to be much of an issue with either of these two points. Indeed, there is also not much pushback from people when it is stated that antibiotics are used to improve the health of animals which have been infected with a bacterial disease. These diseases are common and expensive to the animal industry, and so they are dealt with accordingly.

Antibiotics are used as a response to illness, rather than as a prevention tool (vaccines fall under the preventative umbrella). In order for antibiotics to be used, an animal has to be ill enough to show clinical signs, such as anorexia, antisocial behaviour, fever, pain due to inflammation and signs such as mucus discharge or coughing. When these symptoms exist, it means that the animal cannot fight the infection effectively without aid, which is where antibiotics come in. The animal is treated, and occasionally retreated, to help the animal beat and recover from the infection. Unless antibiotics are used in these cases, it is likely that the animal could suffer for a prolonged period of time and there is even potential for permanent damage to the animal’s body, or the animal could die. From this standpoint, it is difficult to find an argument against the proper use of antibiotics.

Did you see what I did there? “the PROPER use of antibiotics.” This is the sticking point for many consumers. They challenge that farmers are irresponsible with their use of antibiotics. Farmers don’t treat animals properly, with the right medicines, and so these “superbugs” are created. While it is true that superbugs exist, and that they are a medical concern, it is not true that antibiotic use in animals leads to the creation of superbugs (this paper from the Beef Cattle Research Council further explains this). Further, there are claims that the meat farmers produce is laden with antibiotic residue, which people then consume and can get ill from (remember, antibiotics are used to kill organisms). Again, this is simply untrue. Farmers who treat cattle with antibiotics must adhere to designated withdrawal times. Withdrawal times are different for every antibiotic, and for every species, but a withdrawal time is the period which is necessary for the antibiotic to be fully metabolized by the animal and leave the body (usually this occurs in the liver and kidneys). There are strict penalties for animals which are found at the slaughterplant with antibiotic residue in their carcasses, and so it really is a monitored, well recorded way of preventing antibiotics from reaching the food supply.

Based on these arguments, my family and I will continue to adhere to the withdrawal times that have been established for the medications we administer, and we will continue to help end the illnesses which we observe among our animals. In addition to that, we will continue to eat the beef we produce, so I challenge you: If I will eat it, and it has been treated with antibiotics, why won’t you?