Chapter 15

Here’s the Beef

Interlake beef producer Dianne Riding was just 15 years old when she bought her first cattle: 10 Hereford cows.

She was pretty young to start a business but it wasn’t as if you had to be the age of majority to buy cows. It was a somewhat unorthodox sales agreement, however. She signed a handwritten agreement that was all of two sheets of scribbler paper.

The only reason there was an agreement at all was “so if the gentleman passed away, his estate had to honour the deal,” she said.

How could she afford to pay for the cows at age 15? Did she have a high-margin paper route? Did she have a secret tree in the forest that grew money?

No, she didn’t have the money. The deal was she should pay the man within three years by selling off the calves.

“So we had these cows and I babysat and worked for the neighbours and sold my calves and I am happy to say I fulfilled my agreement.”

That first purchase was in 1976. Riding now runs 125 cows near Lake Francis, and was interviewed a few months prior to her completing her two-year term as president of the Manitoba Beef Producers.

With so much turmoil in the cattle industry over the past two decades, many producers like Riding are happy to just be still standing and doing what they love. Riding has seen many changes in the beef industry from the past half century.

She remembers when many of the cattle were still dual purpose for milking and meat. Breeds like Holstein, Jerseys, Shorthorns and Herefords dominated back then. Shorthorns and Herefords are still around in the beef sector but today are joined by Charolais, Limousin, Simmental, and Angus.[i]

She remembers when most people didn’t have to work off the farm just to support the farm. Today, at least one or both people on a cattle operation have to work elsewhere, at least in the beginning.

She remembers it was frowned on when she expressed interest as a young woman in taking over her parents’ dairy farm. “You needed to get a spouse or you needed to go in with male siblings,” she said.

She remembers when it was highly unusual to see a woman inside an auction mart unless they were clerking or bookkeeping. “Now women are sitting in the ring and buy cattle every day.”

She remembers when the cattle weren’t as big—that has changed thanks to advances in breeding—and she remembers smaller herd sizes. At one time, it was unheard of to have 100 cows. Today’s farms manage herds of 500 – 1,000 with some hired help and superior equipment.

She remembers when all the cattle were transported to the St. Boniface Union Stock Yards in Winnipeg. The stock yards were the second largest in North America next to Chicago. The cattle would go into a pen, and then down alleyways that led to each meat packing company, where the animals would be processed the next day.

Her uncle ran a transport truck and would pick up their animals, drop them off at the yard, clean out his truck and backhaul groceries for the local stories in the area.

Today, there are auction marts scattered around the province in Ashern, Gladstone, Killarney, Ste. Rose du Lac, Grunthal, Brandon, Virden and other communities just outside Winnipeg. Thanks to modern technology, producers can also market cattle online.

“We’ve come pretty near full circle” from when a transport truck hauled away your cattle to Winnipeg and producers never saw their animals in the auction ring, to where they can sell the cows from their kitchen table on the computer.

And, unfortunately, she remembers bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

RANCH WAS CONSIDERED an American term a century ago, derived from the Spanish word “rancho,” whereas Manitobans tended to just say cattle farm, although “ranch” is used today when describing a farm that is exclusively for cattle.

Whether you call them cattle farms or ranches, there were a lot fewer of them after BSE. Manitoba had more than 12,000 cattle producers before BSE. There are currently about 6,300 remaining.

The date May 20, 2003, lives in infamy in Canada’s beef industry. That was the day an eight-year-old Black Angus cow in Alberta tested positive for BSE, dubbed “mad cow disease” in Britain because it attacks a cow’s brain and nervous system and changes its behaviour.

The U.S., Canada’s largest market for beef, immediately closed its border to all Canadian beef, followed by 30 other countries.

Cattle numbers soared and prices plummeted. Cattle numbers soared because producers had to retain their animals. Manitoba set a record with 1.74 million head of cattle in 2005 because there were no export markets, breaking previous highs of 1.46 million head in 1975 and 1.45 million in 1997. Producers had to hold onto their cattle and feed them longer while they awaited processing, making it difficult to cover operating expenses.

Riding recalls culled cows selling for just $100 during BSE versus $900 previously. Her strategy was to sell all of her calves, not retaining any heifers, then buy cows that came up for sale. She went to an auction one day to buy 10 cows and came home with 30 because she got them for just $300 each (and had the hay land to feed them). Pre-BSE, the cost would have been $1,000 – $1,200 per animal.

“I liken it to paying the mortgage on a $200,000 house and the house price drops to $50,000 but you still have to pay the $200,000 mortgage. That’s how it affected the cattle industry,” she said.

The surviving farmers dealt with flooding, a significant issue for Manitoba cattle producers. As discussed in previous chapters, flooding will always be an issue in Manitoba—particularly in the Red River Valley and western Manitoba along the Assiniboine River—due to its flat lands. From BSE to flooding, cattle producers show their tenacity—many continued in the industry, moving forward by building up their herds and addressing drought conditions in a sustainable manner.

One positive to come out of all the flooding is a commitment from provincial and federal governments to finally complete drainage channels out of Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. The drainage channels were always part of the flood mitigation blueprint drawn up by the Duff Roblin government but no government had the political will to finish the leg of the project. As a consequence, Assiniboine River waters would pour into Lake Manitoba without a large enough drain to move that water out as had been planned.

Plans are in the works for the provincial and federal governments to cost-share the $540 million construction of outlet channels for Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin, which will move forward once environmental processes and consultations with Indigenous groups are completed.

Canadian beef consumption has been holding steady. Every Canadian consumed an average of 25.6 kilograms of beef in 2020. This marks little change from the previous year, but down from 30.6 kg in 2007. The decrease was pinned on higher beef prices relative to other animal-based proteins. Beef remained the second-most consumed animal protein after chicken. Chicken surpassed beef in the early 2000s and is over 30 kg per person. Back in the early 80s, beef consumption topped out at about 40 kg per person.

BURNS. CANADA PACKERS. Swift. J.M. Schneiders. East-West Packers.

Some producers will have fond memories of the days when those beef processors made Winnipeg the meat packing centre of Canada.

They all disappeared in the 1970s and 80s when the Alberta government used huge subsidies from its oil-rich treasury to lure packers to its province, ostensibly to make its economy less reliant on the fossil fuel industry.

Those memories came back in 2020 when production at today’s large processors—Cargill (processes 4,500 cattle per day) in High River, Alta., and JBS Canada (4,200 cattle per day) in Brooks, Alta.—was disrupted due to COVID-19 outbreaks in their plants.

Losses of $300 per head were reported in Manitoba on sales in the spring from the temporary and partial closure of these plants due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There was still a backlog of 100,000 animals in Canada at the end of 2020, said Manitoba Beef Producers, for a disruption in beef processing more than half a year earlier in April and May. Producers were racked with more costs to feed the animals until they could be processed.

Beef processing in Manitoba is not completely lost, however. Today, a relatively new entity, True North Food, is addressing the shortfall in local, federally inspected capacity with its red meat processing in Carman.

Calvin Vaags, a cattle producer east of Dugald, started his business during BSE when he opened the Carver’s Knife butcher shop in Winnipeg to retail some of his beef. That had modest success but he found more profit after he gravitated into the wholesale side. He was having his animals processed at Plains Processors in Carman and one day the owner offered to sell him the business. So now Vaags owned a cattle farm and 3,000 acres of crop land, a feedlot, a retail butcher shop, a meat wholesale business and Manitoba’s largest beef processing shop.

Vaags set his sights on creating a new, federally inspected plant. He raised capital from investors and shareholders and built a brand new facility, True North Foods, on the site north of Carman. He was promised but did not receive any money from the Manitoba Cattle Enhancement Council that raised $5.6 million to develop such a plant, from a voluntary check-off collected on cattle sales in the province between 2006 – 2013.

True North opened in 2015 and is the only Manitoba plant federally licensed to sell across Canada. It is also licensed to sell into the U.S. and European Union. To quantify the impact, Manitoba’s more than 20 small processors including True North processed 14,238 cattle in 2017. In 2020, Vaags expected to process about 36,000 alone. He expects to hit 50,000 animals within a couple years.

Cargill’s High River plant may almost reach that total every 10 days. And in 1976, during Manitoba’s heydays of meat packing, the province processed 581,000 head. Even so, True North is now the seventh largest such plant in Canada. “That’s nothing to sneeze at,” said Vaags. True North employs about 100 staff.

COVID-19 accelerated his growth in 2020. Producers were searching for local processing options. He had to turn away business. “We accelerated and hit growth targets earlier than expected,” he said.

Vaags acknowledged it’s a tough market and the major players are scarily large and powerful. “A lot of people have tried and failed to put one of these together and make it work, so there’s reason for people to be apprehensive,” he said. 

But when COVID-19 hit, a lot of people had their eyes opened about their dependence on just one or two major processors, and wondered how the beef industry let itself get into that situation.

“We’re a small plant so we can do a lot more niche work that the bigger plants just can’t do,” he said.

True North does a lot of custom processing and fee-for-service harvesting and packaging from groups.  It has done considerable amounts of bison and elk processing in the past, and at the close of 2020 announced it was looking for grass-fed cattle.

That initiative is solely driven by demand from a major customer but it also fits True North’s modus operandi to do things differently from the big players. “It’s not in Cargill’s DNA to address that program but True North Foods can do it,” said Vaags.

He doesn’t think the market will be insignificant, with chains like A&W moving exclusively into grass-fed beef. “My gut says it’s going to be pretty significant and volumes will be pretty decent,” he said.

True North also offers state-of-the-art traceability, the kind that is required to access European markets. As a smaller packer, True North can provide traceability larger plants cannot. With lower volumes and a slower line speed, it can track every piece of meat back to the farm it came from.

Vaags is banking his model will be sustainable. “What I perceive in the future is I think cattle will stay in the geographical area where it makes sense to raise them, and I think further feeding and processing is going to have to come back to those cattle areas,” he said. “It comes down to energy costs. I literally shipped thousands of loads of cattle long distances, and in the 1980s and 90s you could do that very, very cheaply.

“But those costs have increased almost 10 fold. So from a purely economic perspective, it’s going to be harder and harder to justify shipping cattle to High River, Alta. when it costs $100 a head to do that. The economics point to have more of these small plants.”

Vaags spends most of his time running True North these days but still considers himself “a farmer at heart.”

“I still consider myself a farmer. The biggest joy, what I like the most and what makes me get out of bed in the morning is I’m taking resources that aren’t really mine, the sun, soil, rain, and, with technology, I do the best job I can to manage that, I preserve that going forward, and at the same time produce a pile of food that feeds the world,” he said.

“You have to make money but that’s not what gives you the most satisfaction. It’s to take all those resources and manage them to the best of your ability, provide good stewardship to the environment, and be productive, feed people, provide nutrition and a lot of it. When you consider how much an individual farm provides to others, it’s amazing.”

In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 caused the public to reassess where their food comes from, and motivated people to search out more locally-produced products. Smaller abattoirs see this as an opportunity to process a variety of animal proteins to satisfy consumer preferences. It remains to be seen if this will become a trend or not.

SPEAKING OF MEMORIES, one of the comforting features about the cattle sector is how little it has changed compared to other farm sectors in the past 150 years. Whereas other livestock like hogs and chickens require very controlled indoor environments today, cattle are still outside doing their thing, free-ranging in the great outdoors.

Neither has it seen the kind of vertical integration that has entered hog production, or the supply-management of poultry sectors.

“We’re kind of the last frontier for animal agriculture,” said Juanita Kopp, the beef specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.

There has been some change. The cattle are bigger by about 30 per cent than a couple generations ago. Breeds from continental Europe, like Charolais and Limousin from France, and Simmental, a cross between German and Swiss breeds, arrived in the 1960s and 70s and are considerably larger than the British breeds Manitoba started with. The difference is 1,000 – 1,100 pounds for the British breeds, to an average weight today of 1,400 pounds. They also provided a leaner meat that consumers were demanding.

There are a greater variety of breeds being raised, not like poultry or swine where one or two breeds dominate, Kopp said.

Some of the new management practices in cattle include rotational grazing—not over-utilizing land to ensure stronger recovery and more feed alternatives. Government, university researchers and private companies have developed better forage varieties, and more corn is being grown in Manitoba for silage, which has a high nutritional profile and can be less expensive. Many farmers will leave corn as a standing feed in their fields that beef can get at through the winter and into spring. Farmers are also using byproducts of food processing to feed their animals.

And so far as sustainability?

Trust the eye test: cattle out grazing on grasslands just as bison did hundreds of years ago.

Yet the narrative often repeated is about the production of methane gas. Livestock digestion accounts for about three per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, Environment and Climate Change Canada says.

Cattle producers are right to cry foul on methane messaging because it’s opposite to all the positive environmental features of the cattle sector. It’s misinforming to quote methane gas figures but not the benefits of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The narrative completely fails to take into account how cattle benefit grasslands, which benefits the environment by acting as a carbon sink.

After all, animals have grazed on North American grasslands for tens of millions of years, long before domestic livestock. If anything, the cattle industry mimics the bison herds that once roamed the countryside. Grazing on prairie grasses promotes root growth and carbon sequestration, while providing the ground with manure.

Carbon sequestration on native grasslands that accommodate cattle is no less comparable to forest preservation. Both grasslands and forests absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide. Land used for beef production currently stores about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. If cattle weren’t grazing it, that land would be ploughed up and release the greenhouse gases it currently stores.

Those aren’t the only benefits. Above all agriculture sectors, Canada’s beef industry contributes the largest proportion of potential wildlife habitat—68 per cent of the potential wildlife habitat on just 33 per cent of total agricultural land. That’s on grassland. In Manitoba, land used for cattle production provides critical habitat for a variety of plant and wildlife species at risk, including Sprague’s pipits, ferruginous hawks, chestnut-collared longspurs, loggerhead shrikes, burrowing owls and baird’s sparrows, among others.

Other ecosystem services preserved by by Manitoba’s beef sector, in managing thousands of acres of privately owned and agricultural Crown lands, include wetland preservation, nutrient cycling, water regulation and soil erosion control.

[i] When Manitoba started as a province in 1870, the two main cattle breeds in Manitoba were the dual purpose Shorthorns—called Durhams after the English county where the animal was developed—and Ayrshires, predominantly for milk production, originating in Scotland.