STILL WAITING: Cattle haulers such as Grace Cattle Carriers are anxiously awaiting the re-opening of the U.S. border to live cattle.Photo by James Menzies
CALGARY, Alta. – A year after the U.S. closed its border to Canadian beef due to a single case of Mad Cow disease, there is less optimism than ever before among cattle haulers.
That’s according to Keith Horsburgh, owner of Grace Cattle Carriers and chairman of the Southern Alberta Livestock Haulers Association (SALHA).
Although the re-opening of the U.S. border to Canadian beef and live cattle seemed to be inching along at a snail’s pace, at least there was progress being made as the border closure neared the end of its first full year.
Then in late May a controversial lobby group that’s been referred to as “anti-trade” created a stir and set cattle exporters and transporters back a few steps.
R-CALF filed an injunction in the U.S. which put a hasty end to a spring announcement that allowed bone-in cuts of meat to cross the border from Canada. That move restored Canada’s beef exports to the U.S. to 80 per cent of pre-BSE levels almost overnight.
More importantly, it signaled to Canadian observers that a complete end to the ban on Canadian beef and live cattle was just around the corner.
Then R-CALF, which seems to have as many critics south of the border as it does in Canada, was successful in filing an injunction against the loosening of the beef ban, taking the wind out of the sails of the Canadian cattle industry.
“I think there’s less optimism now since R-CALF has stepped in and been able to get an injunction on the bone-in beef going down there,” a deflated Horsburgh told Truck News. “I think the optimism has deteriorated.”
Canadian cattle industry representatives were quick to criticize the injunction.
“R-CALF is a very protectionist organization and they are fundamentally opposed to trade,” Canadian Cattlemen’s Association spokeswoman Cindy McCreath told local media.
“They don’t want to see beef or cattle from any other country going into the U.S…which is narrow-minded and naive.”
Alberta Beef Producers chairman Arno Doerksen added: “As cattle producers, we’re very frustrated with all these delays and concerned about these allegations. We’re looking at every angle to try and conquer their efforts.”
For its part, R-CALF argued public hearings should be carried out before the beef ban is loosened and also called for a new mad cow risk study to be conducted in Canada before the ban is lifted. Ironically, the majority of U.S. beef organizations were equally disappointed in R-CALF’s tactics.
They realize the world is watching to see how the U.S. reacts to the Canadian crisis and many of those countries still have their own bans against U.S. beef in place after a single case of Mad Cow was discovered in Washington State last December.
The last thing many American producers want is for their country to send a message that it is playing hardball when it is at the mercy of other nations to re-open their borders to U.S. beef.
A year after the U.S. ban on Canadian beef and cattle, some startling economic numbers were also released.
A Transborder Trends special item posted on trucknews.com showed that Canadian exports of beef, lamb, goat and other bovine meat products were at about 50 per cent of pre-BSE levels (or $150-$160 million per month) in the spring of 2004.
Total beef exports for 2003 were $2.1 billion – 50 per cent less than 2002 levels. The crisis knocked Canada’s total exports down by 0.6 per cent in ’03 or nearly 0.2 per cent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, farmers have about one million more cattle than they did a year ago as they try to wait out the beef ban.
Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) executive director Kim Royal says the situation remains dire for cattle carriers and to a lesser extend refrigerated goods haulers.
“There’s really been no change in the last several months,” he told Truck News.
“The refrigerated market seems to have mostly recovered pretty much after they opened the border up to cuts of beef under 30 months of age. There was a little bit of a pickup there for about a week when they announced bone-in cuts would be able to go, until the cattle producers got a court injunction against it. Now they’re right back to where they were in about the beginning of March.”
Royal said it’s the livestock haulers who continue to bear the brunt of the ban.
“The livestock haulers are still in the same position – they’ve lost 50 per cent of their drivers and those drivers are now working in other industry sectors,” explained Royal. “There is a definite concern that if the border did open tomorrow, how would they ever be able to ship the meat south? The infrastructure has been devastated and it’s hard to recover the human infrastructure very quickly. Equipment is relatively quick and easy to replace but the people are more difficult and it will take them time to find qualified drivers.”
Carrier bankruptcies were a concern in the livestock sector and it appears they’ve become a reality, but most of the larger carriers have been able to weather the storm so far.
“A couple of the smaller (carriers) have folded but all of a sudden there are a couple new names on the road,” said Royal.
“I think we’re seeing a little bit of consolidation with the reduced market that’s available to livestock haulers.”
If the border doesn’t soon re-open to Canadian beef, then Royal hopes more packing plants will open up within Canada.
“The current packing houses are operating at full capacity,” he pointed out.
Although it would be another year before a major packing plant could be financed, built and then put into operation, Royal still thinks it’s worth pursuing.
“Long-term, that may be the best solution for Western Canada, to reduce our dependence on the U.S. slaughterhouse business,” Royal said.