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Aid package leads Alta. livestock “transition”

Cash-strapped Alberta livestock producers can expect $150 million in immediate aid payments, with another $150 million where that came from if they help create a provincial brand for their meat by setting up age verification and premises ID systems.

On top of that aid package, announced Thursday by provincial Agriculture Minister George Groeneveld, is $56 million to set up a new agency to oversee a new livestock and meat strategy for the country’s biggest beef-producing province.

“Albertans want a competitive and sustainable livestock industry, but this will not happen until we start doing things radically different,” Groeneveld said Thursday in a release.

“The industry needs to regain its competitive advantage and although these changes will not be easy, they are necessary.”

Apart from the low returns and escalating feed and fuel bills squeezing livestock producers across the country, Alberta’s livestock sector is also pained by persistent labour shortages; restricted access to foreign markets; meat packing plants operating well below capacity; lack of a shared strategic vision; lack of product differentiation; overdependence on the U.S. market; lack of an integrated federal-provincial government policy framework; and increasing environmental impacts, the province said.

“Stabilizing” funds

Groeneveld’s new Alberta Livestock and Meat Strategy lists eight priority initiatives for “significant change.” The first $150 million in direct payments to producers is meant to help in “stabilizing” the industry during that transition.

Those payments will go to livestock and meat producers who were in business in 2006 and 2007, based on the producer’s 2006 livestock information and a proxy used to calculate cost of feed.

The second $150 million round of payments will flow in January 2009 to producers who comply with new mandatory age verification and premises ID requirements.

New strategy

Groeneveld’s new livestock and meat strategy is meant to redirect resources to key priorities, revitalize the livestock industry and enhance the value chain, the province said. Topping its list of objectives is to “establish common goals for the livestock industry and create the Alberta Livestock Information System (ALIS) and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.”

The livestock and meat agency, to be governed by an independent board and to report to Groeneveld, is meant to serve as the “catalyst” for the transition, co-ordinate government resources and funding and measure industry and government performance, the province said.

Next on its priority list is animal health and food safety, including expanded animal health surveillance and diagnostic capabilities; increased prion research to eradicate the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy family of diseases (BSE, scrapie and chronic wasting disease) in Alberta; and improved standards for food pathogen testing, food safety systems and “proactive detection” of food safety hazards.

Third on the priority list is ALIS, operating a “mandatory traceability system for disease management,” including information sharing all up and down the food value chain, recording all information including age verification, premises ID, vaccinations, animal welfare practices and process of rearing and breeding information. ALIS’s data would also be used to develop unique, consumer-driven food products, the province said.

The next priority, differentiation, involves creating a system to have “Alberta-branded livestock products.” That includes certification systems for hormone-free, range-fed, grass-fed and/or naturally raised products, plus voluntary certifications for humane animal care and environmental sustainability, and a new Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Livestock Genomics Technology.

Next up are marketing and diversification, including development of a new trade strategy to open up key export markets as well as worldwide market access, attract foreign investment that leads to long-term customer commitment, and review all the province’s current marketing grants and funds.

The sixth priority is an environmentally sustainable livestock industry that supports production of ecological goods and services. Seventh comes cutting costs and regulatory barriers, including reviewing and harmonizing provincial and federal regulations, setting up an industry cost-shared program for new meat processing equipment, and studying the feasibility of an unsubsidized cattle price insurance program.

Then comes industry governance, including a proposal to line up all provincial research and development to focus on commercialization opportunities, and to consider the idea of an endowment fund for ag research investments.

Alberta is home to about two thirds of Canada’s fed cattle and processed beef production, the province said. Sales of cattle from the province’s 5.56 million-head herd contribute over $3 billion in farm cash receipts, compared to $500 million from the hog herd of 1.68 million (2007 statistics). Hog processing in the province accounts for 15 per cent of Canada’s total.

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