BROOKS, Alta. - He's been dubbed the "Eternal Optimist" by many of his peers, but even Grace Cattle Carriers owner Keith Horsburgh didn't exactly jump for joy when the U.S. announced it would re-open...
SAVING GRACE: Grace Cattle Carriers has survived thanks to its strong relationship with a local packing plant.Photo by James Menzies
BROOKS, Alta. – He’s been dubbed the “Eternal Optimist” by many of his peers, but even Grace Cattle Carriers owner Keith Horsburgh didn’t exactly jump for joy when the U.S. announced it would re-open its border to Canadian cattle as of March 7.
“That’s great if it does happen, but I’m not holding my breath. I don’t think it’s going to open that quickly or easily,” he told Truck News following the announcement. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of adverse reaction. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of (U.S. protectionist group) R-CALF at all.”
It’s worth noting that the day after Horsburgh made this comment, R-CALF launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture opposing the end of the cattle ban. Not to mention the fact that the whole re-opening was thrown into doubt thanks to the discovery of yet another BSE-infected cow.
Still, like other cattle haulers, Grace Cattle Carriers has been trying to win back some of its former drivers, who fled the company following the May 2003 beef ban.
“Everyone’s struggling for employees right now,” Horsburgh said. “The equipment is out there, it’s a matter of whether or not we can find the people. We haven’t gained many back since we lost everyone on May 20 (2003).”
Grace Cattle Carriers only spent about five per cent of its miles running state-side prior to the cattle ban, yet it is still unable to maintain its pre-BSE capacity. Horsburgh said the company is “offering white collar wages in a blue collar industry.” He adds it’s hard to stay afloat offering good rates while the company’s rates to ship cattle have been “fairly stagnant for 20 years.”
And even then the good rates haven’t been enough to attract owner/operators back to the turbulent business of hauling livestock.
“I’ve advertised jobs steadily for the last nine months and I’ve gotten very few responses,” Horsburgh lamented.
It’s something that’s hard to come to grips with – especially considering the company hauls locally for the most part and has recovered much of its workload that was lost when BSE first reared its ugly head.
As head of the Southern Alberta Livestock Haulers Association (SALHA was a livestock hauler group formed immediately following the May 20, 2003 cattle ban), Horsburgh has seen first-hand how carriers who were dependent on U.S. routes have been impacted.
“For them to get geared up for March – it’s not going to happen,” he said. “If they have 20 pieces of equipment parked, where are they all of a sudden going to get 20 drivers?”
And those carriers that do agree to run into the U.S. may be demanding a rate increase, he added.
“I think you are going to see an increase in rates to run down there because we certainly can’t afford to do it for what we did before,” Horsburgh said, adding the increase in the cost of fuel alone would be enough to prompt a rate increase. Not to mention what he anticipates will be an increasingly onerous paperwork burden for cross-border cattle haulers. Since American bridge laws make it difficult for U.S.-owned cattleliners to cross into Canada, producers may have a very difficult time finding a solution to the shortage of capacity. The result may be that interlining becomes more prevalent, with Canadian carriers transporting cattle to the border and then offloading onto a U.S. truck for the remainder of the run, Horsburgh speculates.
That adds costs for the shipper, however, and there are very few adequate facilities at the border to offload and reload cattle.
Many of SALHA’s members have hung in because they’ve been able to diversify, said Horsburgh. Still 20-30 per cent of the infrastructure has been depleted right across the board, he estimates.
“We’re not going to be able to put power equipment under the trailers to get the work done,” he said of the border re-opening. “I sold off some equipment and I still have 20 per cent of my equipment parked (due to a lack of drivers).”