The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Canadian meat producers has put normal operations out to pasture.
Pork and cattle farmers are grappling with how to care for a growing number of animals as issues at processing plants unravel, leaving ranchers with increasing costs and losses.
For a pork producer like René Roy in Quebec, it’s been increasingly difficult to find solutions.
“These pigs should go to slaughter, but now we keep them, so it means more feed,” he said. “And we’re not getting that money back because we’re not able to sell them. It’s a two-fold problem here.”
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has warned that some pork producers are teetering on euthanasia as a consequence of the overcrowding and financial losses that come with caring for more animals than they can support. It’s becoming a “business decision,” CFA vice-president Keith Currie said during a recent House industry committee teleconference.
“The last thing we want to see is euthanasia,” he said. “But in some cases, it’s the only answer to solve this problem, so we’re looking for government to help these processing facilities as much as they can.”
While the possibility has crossed Roy’s mind, he says it’s always the last resort for farmers.
“There are some farms in Canada that have faced this extreme solution — if I can even use the word solution — and it’s heartbreaking,” said Roy, who is also the vice-chairman of the Canadian Pork Council. “It can happen in different stages and for different reasons, but the major reasons right now is the backlog and COVID-19.”
Farmers are trying to adapt, he said, but it’s not always within their means.
On his own farm, Roy has “optimized” space in his barn. He’s also been more selective about which animals move to the processing stage each week, choosing fewer and only the largest ones. He estimates there are over 100,000 hogs in backlog in Quebec alone.
Other farms have rented additional barns or farmland to meet their needs.
“But it’s not always a solution that’s accessible or affordable,” he said. “That’s why some have had to euthanize some animals.”
The kink in the chain is by and large in the processing sector.
Meat processing plants have proven to be particularly vulnerable to the virus. Several vital Canadian pork and beef plants have been forced to suspend or slow operations due to outbreaks among workers. Adapting to new health protocols has also put a strain on operational capacity.
The two-week closure of the Cargill plant in Calgary highlights this. Since an outbreak was first reported at the facility, there have been more than 900 cases of the illness and one death among the 2,000 workers. It’s the largest outbreak linked to a single site in Canada.
The High River plant alone processes about 4,500 of cattle a day — more than one-third of Canada’s beef-packing capacity.
It effectively put a hold on the beef production process, with ranchers taking the first hit.
“When you lose slaughter capacity, then you have these animals begin to back up in barns,” said Ken McEwan, an economics and agribusiness professor at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus, who has been studying the effects of the pandemic on the industry.
“Then you have extra weight on animals, making it difficult for producers, which makes it difficult for transporters and then difficult for processors. It just snowballs throughout the value chain.”
For producers, there’s no off-switch. It can take months to raise an animal to a “finishing” stage, meaning farming decisions made nearly a year ago are only now being impacted.
“People are saying, ‘Why don’t you stop producing?’ The problem is the piglets will be ready in about five months. People will need food five months from now,” said Roy. “Do I stop some level of production? Or do I continue to feed for tomorrow? That’s a hard decision to make.”
Either way, the cost to feed livestock only grows.
For cattle producers, that can be thousands of dollars a day just to care for each one, according to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).
Bob Lowe, an Alberta rancher, feedlot owner and president of the CCA, estimates that the industry has a backlog of between 100,000 and 112,000 cattle ready for market with “no place to go.” That’s on top of the thousands of other cattle in feedlots getting ready for market, he said.
There are two things hurting. You’re still paying about $4 a day, per cattle — and I’ve personally got about 4,000 here — and then there’s the fact these cattle are getting bigger,” he said.
“I’ve got some cattle here that were destined to go to a plant a month ago, now they’re too big. We don’t really know what to do. They’ll go somewhere, at some point, but in the meantime, it’s a big question mark.”
Overcrowding is less of an issue for cattle farmers, he said, and given the lifespan of a cow, euthanasia “doesn’t make sense.”
“We’ve got about $2,500 invested in each animal by the time they’re ready to go to the plant, so to put them in a pit, that’s a fairly big cost loss,” he said. “On the other side, it’s incomprehensible to me.”
That’s why getting the processing sector back up and running is so important, he said.
The Trudeau government announced a suite of new emergency aid for the agri-food sector Tuesday, including $125 million to support cattle and pork producers with changes to the market and animal overstock, and $77 million to keep workers safe in processing facilities with protective equipment and by retrofitting plants to meet new public health protocols.
Part of the problem solving will also be addressing absenteeism among plant workers, said Lowe.
“Everybody’s focus should be on figuring out a way to get a sputtering capacity back to where it should be,” he said.
“When we get that to where it should be, the rest of it will take care of itself. In the meantime, there’s a whole lot of cattle out here we just keep feeding.”
— with files from the Canadian Press