As processing plants close in Alberta, producers are feeling the effects and looking for ways to get their beef to market
The Canadian beef industry, like many industries, is feeling the effects of COVID-19. In Alberta, the Cargill High River processing plant announced a temporary shutdown on April 20. The closure follows in the wake of hundreds of workers testing positive for COVID-19 and one person dying.
This shutdown creates a huge hole in the beef market in Canada and Alberta, said Rich Smith, the executive director of the Alberta Beef Producers.
“That plant effectively processes 35 per cent to 40 per cent of all the beef in Canada. And almost half of the beef that was processed in Alberta. So, all the sudden, that's not available as a market for cattle,” Smith told Farms.com.
The Cargill plant could process approximately 4,000 to 4,500 animals a day, said Smith.
Now, producers who were ready to sell their cattle are left with little to no markets as more plants are becoming affected across North America. Staff at the Alberta Beef Producers are working to find a solution within the province, said Smith.
“We're talking with the provincial government about some of the smaller provincial processing plants to see if they can increase their capacities. We're looking at options for people to figure out a way to get meat processed,” he said. “It takes time to develop those markets and this plant represented a very large number of animals. So, it takes a lot of local sales to account for one day of cattle being processed at the Cargill plant.”
Representatives from the commodity organization are also working with the government to look at set aside programs to help producers with the cost of maintaining cattle they can’t sell. Representatives are examining business risk management programs too, said Smith.
“We're working with governments to try and make sure that we have financial assistance available for those producers who need it,” he said.
This upset in the system will continue to trickle through the sector. As producers keep back the cattle they can’t sell, they are also unable to buy new cattle. It’s really a guessing game as to how this situation will affect producers as time unfolds, said Smith.
For “the people who are going to be selling through the rest of this spring and into the summer and fall, it's going to depend on how well the markets can respond and how quickly those plants can get moving back towards full capacity. Because they have been deemed an essential service, they will operate when they can,” said Smith.
While the markets and industry have a lot of uncertainties right now, one positive for Alberta cattle producers is the arrival of warm weather.
“People who are out calving are certainly happier because we've had a really cold April until the last few days here in Alberta. April is a big month for calving and people have been fighting some really bad weather,” said Smith.
Another positive is the amount of time people are spending cooking at home, said Smith.
“People are maybe learning again or learning for the first time how to cook beef,” he said. “The demand for Canadian food products is still strong and I think, in a time like this, people are even more conscious of supporting Canadian food production. So that's very positive.”
PamWalker68/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo