Where’s the beef? Western Canada’s ranchers go with the grain

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Six decades of raising cattle at the family farm 45 kilometres south of Brandon came to an end last fall for Bill Campbell, who sold off his herd to focus on grain production.

“It was tough (to quit), but you get to a certain point in your life where decisions need to be made,” said Campbell, 67, who farms with his wife Lauren.

Several factors played into his decision to focus on grain after decades of mixed farming.

One of his long-time employees died from a heart attack, and then the spring of 2022 was horrific in Manitoba as three Colorado lows dumped rain and snow across the province, turning farmyards and feedlots into swamps.

“If you’re 40, you’re willing to do it and put up with it,” Campbell said as he scratched the back of Maggie, a brown and white dog who looks like a cross between a border collie and an Australian sheep dog.

“Last spring, we were feeding cows to the 15th of June.”

Thousands of cattle producers in Canada have made the same decision as Campbell.

Statistics Canada data indicates that the number of cows on cow-calf farms fell from 3.94 million to 3.29 million between Jan. 1, 2010 and Jan. 1, 2023, a loss of 655,000 head.

Since the average cow-calf operation has about 70 cows, possibly 9,000 to 9,500 Canadian farmers have quit the cattle business since 2010.

Agriculture census data indicates the number of farms with beef cows declined by 7,000 from 2011 to 2021, so it’s certainly possible that 9,000 farmers have quit cattle since 2010.

Driving around the Minto area south of the Souris River, it’s obvious that only a few people are still raising cattle. There are almost no fences on the landscape. Land once used for pasture is now producing canola, wheat or soybeans.

In the area around Minto, Campbell knows of only one cow-calf operator who makes a living solely from cattle — meaning, no off-farm job.

“You talk to him on the 10th of May, he’s burned (out),” Campbell said. “This guy doesn’t leave the farm from the 10th of January to April because he is calving.”

While thousands of grain farmers have also retired or sold their farms over the past 15 years, grain land isn’t being taken out of production.

When cropland goes up for sale, in 90 per cent of cases a local grain producer is likely buying the land, perhaps going from 3,000 to 5,000 acres and then expanding again to 8,000 acres — in some cases buying and other cases renting land to expand.

However, when a farmer sells a cow-calf operation in Western Canada, it’s uncommon for another cattle producer to buy the land and expand their farm.

That’s possibly why the number of beef cows and farmers raising cattle in Canada have both been declining: livestock farmers are quitting and their land is being converted to grain production.

“In the last 22 years, there’s only been two (cattle) operations that would have expanded at a rate similar to ours … in the Kisbey district,” said Darren Ippolito, who runs Moose Creek Red Angus in Kisbey, west of Carlyle, Sask.

Meanwhile, every grain producer around Kisbey has got bigger since 2001.

“One hundred per cent of the (grain) operations would have expanded no less than three times (in size),” Ippolito said. “On the cow-calf side, less than a quarter (have expanded).”

From the early 2000s to now, Ippolito and his family more than tripled their herd, going from 180 to 600 cows.

But cow-calf farms with 500 cows are not common in Canada.

Most cattle producers in Canada are part-time farmers who operate a “mixed income farm,” Ippolito said.

A sizable chunk of their money comes from a job driving a truck, or maybe working as a teacher or nurse. Raising cattle is a sideline.

“Numbers that I’ve seen from CCA (Canadian Cattle Association), 75 to 85 per cent of livestock producers have full-time or part-time jobs,” Campbell said, including his daughter and son-in-law, who farm near Douglas, Man.

“(They) have two full-time jobs and they have 140 cows. They need the jobs to pay for the cows.”

That on-the-ground reality is absurd, considering the size of Canada’s cattle industry. The cattle and beef sector contributes $22 billion to the Canadian economy, according to the CCA, and the industry wouldn’t exist without cow-calf producers.

Statistics Canada data for the Jan. 1 livestock inventory shows there are now 500,000 fewer cows on cow-calf operations in Western Canada.

An interesting bit of data from the 2021 Census of Agriculture indicates that the average size of a cattle ranch in Western Canada has gone from around 75 cows in 2011 to about 85 cows in 2021. Across Canada, the average size was 63 cows in 2011 and 69 in 2021.

That’s a slow increase, considering the rapid consolidation in the grain sector, where 1,500 acre grain farms have become rare in Western Canada and 7,000 acre farms have become normal.

The slow increase in cow-calf size could be explained by the huge number of part-time cattle producers in Canada. They continue to raise 50 to 70 cows, are content with their off-farm job and like the additional income from cattle.

They’re comfortable with the status quo — at least for now. Their interest in cattle may dwindle when they’re 70 and have a bad knee.

Another factor holding back consolidation is stiff competition for available land.

Martin Unrau, who runs a 600 head cow-calf farm near MacGregor, Man., with son Garett, wife Roxie and daughter-in-law Heidi, has seen multiple instances where a grain producer bought land that was once pasture or forage land.

As an example, three livestock farms came up for sale on the west side of Lake Manitoba a few years ago, just north of pasture the Unrau’s held at Langruth.

“The ranch was not taken on by another cattleman,” says Unrau, a former CCA president. “A big grain guy bought all three places, and just wiped the trees off (the land). Those three ranches are now grain farms.”

This sort of purchase, where a grain producer buys what has traditionally been livestock land, happens because grain farmers often have more capital and it’s easier to expand a grain operation.

Ippolito gave an example.

Say a 3,000-acre ranch with a mix of pasture and cropland comes up for sale. If there is a large grain farmer in the area, adding 3,000 acres isn’t a big deal.

But for a cow-calf guy with 300 head, adding 3,000 acres is a massive jump. It will require more employees, a huge capital investment and possibly more financial risk, compared to the grain producer.

“The 3,000 is too much (for me). Whereas, if you’re already farming 10,000 acres … 3,000 is not too much. That’s the problem,” Ippolito said.

There’s also the simple economics of grain farming versus cattle production. Grain production is more lucrative.

A while ago, 50 per cent of the revenue on Campbell’s farm came from grain and 50 per cent from cattle.

“And the workload was 50-50,” Campbell said. “But during the 2010s, we saw a shift where the grain farming started to produce more revenue … and was easier to do. The livestock required more labour and (there was) less return.”

Unrau knows that grain production usually makes more financial sense because he grows canola, wheat and silage corn on about 1,400 acres of land.

“In all reality, I should be selling my cows today and I should be having just canola on all my land. And I’d be making way more money and I’d be insured,” Unrau said, while sitting in a wood-panelled office attached to a white barn on his farm.

Money is one thing, but there’s also the matter of how a farm family wants to spend their winter.

Would they rather take their daughter to a hockey tournament in Toronto or stay on the farm and feed cattle?

“The cow-calf industry is hard work. It’s a lot easier to sow 3,000 acres of canola than it is to calve 500 cows,” Unrau said. “I can farm 3,000 acres by myself.”

Campbell agreed.

He’s a proponent of mixed farms and diversifying risk, but livestock do determine what a farm family can and can’t do during the year.

In their case, his two girls were involved in 4-H and livestock competitions, which was great.

But other activities, such as playing in volleyball tournaments in Minneapolis, were not an option.

“I’ve also had limited opportunities to get away to Mexico for two weeks,” he said.

“It’s not Monday to Friday and it’s not (easy) to walk away from a problem.… You have to deal with it.”

If labour was more available in rural Canada, then cow-calf farmers could have more flexibility and possibly get away from the farm in the winter.

But there’s a severe shortage of farm labour in Canada.

“To get a 25-year-old to come out here and calve cows when it’s 40 below … there aren’t many willing to do that,” Campbell said.

“You speak to a lot of guys that have 300 to 400 cows, labour will be one of their biggest issues.”

Ippolito is one of them.

In the last 20 years, Moose Creek Red Angus has relied on workers from all parts of the globe and all segments of society.

“I was counting up the other day. We have hired people from 15 different countries,” he said in 2021.

“(We hired) First Nations, LBGQT, visible minorities … we’ve employed them (all) over the years.”

Campbell, who sold off his Limousin bulls and cows last fall, isn’t totally out of the cattle business.

This winter he’s feeding a group of heifers that belong to his daughter and son-in-law.

As he walked around the feeding pen on a sunny afternoon in early March, Campbell said he’s an optimist, but Western Canada can be a harsh place to produce beef.

“There needs to be some awareness that’s it not cheap to raise cattle in Canada. It’s cold, and we have six months of winter,” he said.

“It’s a lot cheaper to raise cattle in Kansas.”

Ippolito shared a similar message about the economics of raising cattle.

For years, cow-calf producers have relied on “trickle-down” economics, where they’re at the bottom of the supply chain and receive a fraction of the profits in the beef production system.

But will their share be large enough, over the next decade, so the cow-calf herd stabilizes in Canada?

“I’m extremely bullish on the cattle market. (But) I’m reserved on the cow-calf side of it, until we can figure out if trickle-down economics are actually going to trickle down,” he said.

“We’re competing against high land values. We’re competing on labour, we’re competing against … outside investment in property, oil and gas.”

Farmers will continue to raise cattle on the Prairies, but it’s obvious to veterans of the business that something needs to change.

Otherwise, the exodus of cattle producers will continue.

“There hasn’t been that awareness … that the cow-calf guy has been hurting,” Campbell said, as he looked to the south and squinted into the mid-day sun.

“There’s been an assumption that there will be cattle here. And there will be. The question is: how many?”

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