Grace Cattle Carriers: Praying for An End to the Beef Ban

by James Menzies

BROOKS, Alta. – At a feedlot south of Strathmore, Alta., a convoy of five cattleliners is lined up waiting to be loaded with fat cattle destined for Lakeside Packers. Each of the trailers proudly displays the green Grace Cattle Carriers logo, and each are skillfully loaded, one after the other.

Hooves clank against metal on this unseasonably warm March afternoon, and the sound is music to the ears of the truckers who wait patiently for the apprehensive cattle to board.

These are the survivors – the truckers who have remained in the cattle hauling business through a devastating year of uncertainty and turmoil. The uncertainty remains, but the familiar sound of hooves on metal provides some respite from the steady stream of bad news that has flooded this industry since a case of BSE was discovered in a single Alberta cow on May 20, 2003.

About an hour east of the feedlot – in Brooks, Alta. – Grace Cattle Carriers’ owner Keith Horsburgh quietly contemplates the state of his industry. He counts himself among the most fortunate of Alberta livestock hauling companies, thanks to his proximity to loyal customer Lakeside Packers. Still, his fleet has not entirely escaped the lingering fallout caused by BSE.

Horsburgh has seen 40 per cent of his driving team (each driver with more than 10 years of livestock hauling experience) flee for greener pastures – primarily the oil patch. His fleet has been downsized from 20 trucks to 17, and he has twice had to cancel an order for four new trailers (the first order was placed just before May 20, while the other order was about to be placed before a U.S. cow with BSE was traced back to Alberta last fall).

“Maybe it’s my fault, I keep on wanting to buy these trailers,” jokes Horsburgh.

All jokes aside, Horsburgh is extremely concerned about the future of his company and others like it. He has seen plenty of livestock hauling companies fall by the wayside already, and many others could also die unceremoniously before the U.S. ban on live Canadian cattle is lifted.

Grace itself saw its freight volumes decrease by 30 per cent overall last year – and up to 70 per cent in June and July. Not all companies can take a hit like that and survive.

“Unfortunately, there are some companies that probably won’t make it,” says Horsburgh. “There have been a few good operators who have simply parked their equipment and gone to do something else.”

When the border does re-open, Horsburgh wonders how the driver-depleted livestock hauling business will be able to serve the cattle industry.

“The biggest problem is going to be finding the qualified people to put back on the road again,” Horsburgh suggests. “If they were to open the border now – even to fat cattle under 30 months – the infrastructure is just not there. We don’t have the capability to service the industry anymore. A lot of the infrastructure is lost and we’re not going to have the equipment or the people to maintain what we were doing before.”

The average age of Grace’s drivers has decreased from 45 to 35 since May 20, 2003. One of the drivers who jumped ship had 30 years of livestock hauling under his belt, says Horsburgh.

“The industry can’t afford to be losing people like that,” he laments.

Cattle hauling companies such as Grace have been forced to cut costs to avoid bankruptcy. Grace Cattle Carriers has scaled back its expenditures such as office supplies, while doing whatever it can to accommodate its drivers.

“We haven’t changed our methods of payment,” says Horsburgh. “But I’ve had to be a lot more competitive on some of the loads we’ve tried to get and that means a little more money out of Grace’s pocket that goes towards the lease/operators.”

Grace Cattle Carriers is but a microcosm of an industry-wide problem. And although the cattle hauling business (like other sectors of the trucking industry) is fiercely competitive, the BSE crisis has in some ways brought rivals from across the province closer together. Horsburgh is an active member of the Southern Alberta Livestock Haulers’ Association – a group that was founded after the May 20 discovery of BSE on an Alberta farm. SALHA calculates monthly losses to the Alberta livestock trucking industry at about $10 million. And the association has appealed to federal and provincial politicians to extend financial aid to livestock transportation companies, but to no avail.

“I’ve got a file in my office that’s about three inches thick with rejection letters from various ministers,” says Horsburgh. He says he’s not feeling defeated, however, since the effort did bring a lot of attention to the plight of cattle carriers.

Also, the SALHA campaign has laid the foundation for like-minded companies to work together for the overall betterment of the industry.

“It’s a competitive business but we still need to be able to sit down together and talk and work out these things,” Horsburgh insists.

Mad Cow disease is not the only matter livestock haulers have been forced to contend with as of late. The humane transportation of animals is becoming a more important issue as well, and it’s not going away, says Horsburgh.

“(Humane transportation) is a huge issue and it’s becoming a bigger issue every year – almost every day, especially with the developments of the past few months,” Horsburgh says. “I think there’s going to come a time when anybody who wants to haul livestock is going to need a livestock handling certificate.”

The veteran cattle hauler agrees with the concept of requiring livestock haulers to be trained before they can hook up to a load of live freight.

“I think it’s something we can sell to the public,” he reasons.

It takes a special breed of trucker to haul livestock properly, says Horsburgh, who’s quick to point out even some of the most seasoned drivers aren’t fit to haul livestock. Given the choice, he says he’d rather hire someone with cattle experience than trucking experience. He believes driving the truck is the easy part.

“Anybody can drive a truck, but you need to know how to handle animals properly. If you don’t handle them properly and you get one wrong person watching, you’re going to be out of a job,” Horsburgh says. “I would prefer to hire the guy at the feedlot who has never driven a truck rather than a guy with a lot of driving experience, but the insurance companies would probably have a problem with that.”

With an ever-diminishing pool of prospective drivers, Horsburgh has tried out some younger drivers with cattle experience. But getting them insured if they’re under 25 years of age has proven difficult, exacerbating the driver shortage facing the entire cattle hauling industry.

“There are a lot of good people there who are under 25 and deserve the opportunity to prove themselves,” says Horsburgh. “They’ve got to start somewhere.”

The other advantage of hiring young blood is that it’s easy to teach them the proper way of handling livestock, he says.

“Old habits die hard and there are a lot of old ways of doing things that were acceptable 20 years ago that just aren’t acceptable anymore.”

Given the myriad challenges facing cattle haulers, one wonders why they even bother to stay in business.

Horsburgh says he’s in it for the people.

“I’ve always liked dealing with the rancher,” he explains. “I’ve always liked being able to go and load and unload 24 hours a day. I don’t have to worry about someone’s nine-to-five schedule. You can haul out of a sale at 10 at night and be at the rancher’s place at 2 in the morning. He’s just as happy to get his cattle at 2 in the morning as he is at 9 in the morning.

“It’s a real hands-on operation and you’re out there dealing with the rancher and the rancher’s livelihood all the time.”

Horsburgh enjoys interacting with the ranchers so much, he married one less than two years ago.

“We’re not sure who made the mistake, the rancher marrying a livestock hauler or the livestock hauler marrying a rancher,” he jokes.

Just when things will return to normal for Grace Cattle Carriers and other companies like it remains to be seen. Horsburgh says the business may never be the same

“I think we’re dealing with a new reality. I don’t think we’ll ever see it return to what we had before,” Horsburgh reasons.

He’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet, though. He believes the really successful companies in any line of work are the ones that can roll with the punches and face adversity head-on.

“I always get accused of being overly optimistic and seeing my glass as always half full, but I do believe this industry will come around eventually,” Horsburgh says. “The timeline is anybody’s guess. It’s a changing business every day and we’re going to have to adjust and go with it because the ones that don’t are not going to be here anymore.”

Will Grace Cattle Carriers be here when the U.S. border re-opens to Canadian cattle and traffic picks back up to previous levels?

“That’s our hope,” Horsburgh says with a smile. “We’re here for the long haul.”

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