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Canadian Cattle Numbers at Three Decade Lows

In the wake of Prairie drought and sharply higher feed costs, Canadian cattle numbers have slipped to the lowest in over three decades.

A Statistics Canada livestock report Monday put the total number of cattle on Canadian farms as of Jan. 1 at 11.1 million head, down 0.5% from a year earlier and the lowest for that date since 1989.

“The Canadian livestock sector continued to navigate challenges in the latter half of 2021. In Western Canada, extreme weather events — ranging from record heat and drought conditions to severe flooding events — limited forage, increased feed costs and disrupted transportation routes,” StatsCan said.

Canadian cattle inventories have generally declined year over year since reaching their zenith in 2005 at just under 15 million head. Much of that buildup in cattle numbers was due to the BSE crisis which temporarily closed international borders to Canadian beef, resulting in a backlog of animals.

Cattle inventories were up 1.2% to 2.9 million head in Eastern Canada as of Jan. 1 but declined by 1.2% to 8.2 million head in Western Canada, “as drought conditions maintained pressure on the livestock sector,” StatsCan said. Alberta held the largest cattle inventories among the provinces on Jan. 1, contributing 39.4% to the national total, followed by Saskatchewan (19.9%) and Ontario (14.6%).

In addition to rising feed costs, lower Jan. 1 cattle numbers were also the result of export demand for beef which supported an increase in slaughter, StatsCan said. Cattle and calf slaughter for the period from July to December 2021 was up 0.7% from the same period in 2020, and reached the highest level recorded since the second half of 2009. Total exports of Canadian beef and veal rose 19.6% in 2021 compared with 2020, as US demand was particularly strong.

Meanwhile, international exports of cattle and calves for the latter half of 2021 were up 22.8% year over year to 331,100 head, particularly in Western Canada, where the drought and feed costs spurred sales of both feeder and slaughter animals to the US.

In a sign of continued herd downsizing, Canadian cattle producers also retained less breeding stock on Jan. 1, 2022, as year-over-year decreases in the number of beef cows (-0.9% to 3.5 million head) and beef heifers for breeding (-4% to 517,300 head) helped to more than offset increases in the number of dairy heifers for breeding (+0.8% to 429,700 head) and bulls (+1.7% to 213,600 head). Producers also held fewer feeder heifers (-2.3%) and steers (-3.9%) than on Jan. 1, 2021.

Average prices for Canadian feeder and slaughter cattle generally remained higher in the second half of 2021, compared with the same period in 2020, even as prices were pressured by herd reductions in the Prairie provinces.

Inventories of cattle and calves as of Jan. 1 were reported by 72,275 Canadian farms, down 0.9% from Jan. 1, 2021. The number of cattle farms in Canada has generally decreased since 2004, largely because of business consolidations, StatsCan said.

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