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Alberta beef plants nearly back to full capacity after COVID-19 outbreaks, but cattle backlog remains

Canadian beef industry stakeholders address COVID-19 crisis
WATCH ABOVE: (March 20, 2020): Canada’s beef sector continues to assess the economic climate amidst the coronavirus pandemic and there’s now a push to ensure adequate labour on the meat processing side. Tom Roulston reports.

Canada’s main beef-packing plants are returning to full capacity after COVID-19 outbreaks, but the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association isn’t expecting a backlog of cattle to go away soon.

The outbreaks caused prolonged closures and slowdowns at beef-processing plants across the country.

Among the hardest hit were the Cargill plant in High River, Alta., which shut down for two weeks before reopening at reduced capacity. The JBS Canada plant in Brooks, Alta., operated with just a single shift each day for a full month.

Read more: OHS report finds COVID-19 investigation at Cargill High River plant did not include worker representation

The two plants together normally process about 70 per cent of Canada’s beef.

“Our High River facility is currently operating at 95 per cent capacity and we expect to be back to our typical volumes next week,” Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in an email.

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The plant processes up to 4,500 cattle per day.

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The Brooks plant is now back to pre-COVID numbers of about 4,200 animals per day.

“We are carefully monitoring our risk mitigation measures on a daily basis, and will continue to make decisions based on the best available data and advice from both our team members and public health officials,” said Cameron Bruett, the head of Corporate Affairs for JBS USA.

Canadian beef supply lacking at Calgary grocery stores
Canadian beef supply lacking at Calgary grocery stores

Both plants suffered widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 and implemented new safety measures, including temperature testing of all workers, providing face masks and installing partitions on production lines.

Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said after months of struggle a return to normal is welcome.

Read more: Meat processing disruptions amid COVID-19 spur changes to Canadian beef supply, prices ahead of BBQ season

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However, he said the backlog of cattle at feedlots and ranches still sits at between 120,000 and 130,000 head and it’s going to take a while to reduce that surplus.

“At least we’re not backing up any more animals and secondly we’re going to start to work into those numbers going ahead,” he said.

“I think we’re hearing from everyone that this isn’t going to get done in a week. This is going to take months.”

While cattle prices have been lower because of the backlog, Laycraft said he hopes to see the system return to pre-COVID normal sometime this fall.

He said there are typically fewer animals going to slaughter in the summer, which means the plants will be able to make up for lost time.