Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series by Alberta rancher and consultant Sean McGrath with some thoughts on actions to improve the Canadian beef industry. In Part 1, McGrath outlined the value of developing a vision statement for his own farm. Here are more thoughts on what he might include in a vision statement for the beef industry. “Once the vision is clear, solving the problems and charting the path forward become the challenge,” says McGrath. “I am far from capable of visioning the entire beef industry, but I have put together a few thoughts that I would like to leave open for discussion. Rather obviously, each topic could be a long discussion in its own right, so consider this a brief summary as food for thought.”
Get serious about trade
There are obviously several paths available when discussing the future. The one I envision includes trade. Given the size of the Canadian population, if we do not engage in trade, then we need to dramatically downsize our cow herd. Personally, I favour smart trade. I would envision a target of less than 50 per cent of our exports going to the U.S. If we look at our Canadian resources, relative to our population demographics, then I think we need to be active traders. If we were to expand the cow herd to seven million, then we could meet all of our current commitments to U.S. customers and still hit our 50 per cent target.
That said, I am not so naïve as to believe that beef won’t flow to the either the highest value or easiest market, so trade increase will require some serious effort. I think our trade policy needs to be astute, aggressive and non-apologetic. This rubs many the wrong way, as it is almost “non-Canadian.” I lean a little bit to the side of making commitments and then meeting them (in that order).
There is no better way to learn how to swim than to dive right in. We will continue (I hope) to see live cattle trade with the U.S. and this is an important component of the industry. It also provides needed processing capacity and may provide potential for Canadians to participate in already-developed or developing markets more quickly than may be accessible with a strictly Canadian approach. In other words, just because the cattle are processed or sold in the U.S. does not mean a Canadian operation cannot have a clear stake in the end product.
This is a big one, and we are starting to see real obvious impacts from regulation that we can’t ignore. The best recent example is the new antibiotic regulations for livestock and the need to a veterinary-client relationship.
Regulatory inefficiency is currently very damaging to the Canadian industry, although I might argue that the intent in most cases is not all bad. We do need to regulate antibiotic use for example, however we also require clear, concise regulations with a consistent application. Regulatory approval for new processors has also represented a real bottleneck for the industry over the last 15 years (I know as I lost a lot of money learning this lesson). The same is true for new livestock products and feed labels. Regulations need to be outcome-based, but compliance should allow for creativity and demonstrable achievement. In other words, we want to regulate the outcome but not the process to achieve it. If a specific process results in meeting the desired outcome in a safe/humane fashion and is scientifically valid it could/would receive approval.
In this vision the CFIA and Health Canada would have some synergy, reduced overlap and a clear mandate and accountability structure. This could result in clear criteria for new ventures such as veterinary drug approval or packing plant development.
Additionally, in my regulatory wish list would be clear boundaries between provincial and federal jurisdictions and parity of provincial regulations across the country. For example, I know that I have eaten beef from provincially inspected plants across much of Canada and have felt safe doing so. It should not be unreasonable to expect that same beef could trade across provincial lines and that food safety regulations could be harmonized. The same applies to environmental regulations, with some leeway for specific local conditions and issues such as rainfall levels. The outcomes and processes to licence a new intensive livestock operation should be similar/logical across provinces, with some regional common sense.
Let’s face it, a lot of the risk management tools available to cow folks are poor in comparison to our grain-producing neighbours, but they don’t need to be. WLPIP has been a great start and addition to managing market risk, but there are a lot of other production risks that are not covered. The truth is that in a systems approach, cows are actually a very good risk management tool as they can thrive in many environments and add value to poor-quality feeds. My vision here would be that the cow/forage programs and the grain programs would have some synergy. For example, if a grain producer were hailed out, they would be given a much more immediate option to salvage a crop for feed, rather than being forced into combining a crop with limited economic value. I would also envision forage programs with flexibility to graze and with higher payout values available for forage crops. If we are able to double forage production through management, then surely the insured value should be able to be increased.
Part of risk management is traceability and although we have a good traceability system in place, I would envision it being much more automated/streamlined and also contain a DNA component so that there could be traceback right from the end product on the plate. This traceability could also be of great value to the genetic selection and management efforts of the industry moving forward.