The challenges faced by cow-calf operations are separate from that of the livestock industry at large.
But some of the pressing issues that animal husbandry sector in Alberta faces, or specifically Stettler are facing, are similar throughout Canada.
“Marketing our product to the USA has been a challenge due to the country of origin labeling (COOL) regulations,” said Calvert Haustein, a dairy farmer, based out of Erskine. “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease among cows,and drought this year has decreased herd size in many areas by forcing producers to sell.”
According to Haustein, this has allowed for calf and fat cattle prices to increase, which is a positive for the producer, but many feedlots don’t have enough cattle or feed to run at full capacity.
“There are ongoing talks to remove COOL or apply retaliating tariffs to end COOL to help open up the US market again to large volumes of Canadian cattle,” added Haustein.
However, for the cow calf operations, the hurdles are slightly different.
“Throughout Alberta this year, with widespread drought, there is diminished hay crops causing the cost of hay to increase by close to 50 per cent,” said Kevin Shuckburgh, a cow-calf producer. “Now that’s a good problem to have if you are in the business of selling hay but becomes adverse if you cannot feed your herd with what you produce.”
For instance, half of what that cow sells for in the fall, would go towards feeding the cow through the winter.
“Nutrition testing of feed and forage plays a huge role as a person can optimize the amount of feed and supplements required to get the herd through the winter,” said Shuckburgh. “This will ensure that a person is not ‘feeding blind’ and keep cost in check, and there are many nutritionists available to help farmers optimize these inputs.”
According to Shuckburgh, with the lack of hay available this year, many cow calf producers chose to put up silage or green feed.
Speaking of the many problems that small cow calf producers are facing, Shuckburgh said, “First and foremost is the cost of doing business, as inflation increases throughout the years you are producing a commodity that will not necessarily track in the same direction.”
According to Shuckburgh, with the cost living, land, equipment and supplies continually on the rise, there is never any guarantee that the price of a calf in the fall will cover input costs.
“It’s a chance you take, as the cost of everything increases you have a choice to make between getting more efficient or increasing herd size to overcome shrinking margins,” said Shuckburgh. “The thing to remember is that a high percentage of people work per hour and get paid for that hour’s work so over the course of a year you can budget, based off what your guaranteed income is.”
Speaking of raising cattle, Shuckburgh said, “For many cow calf operations there is one payment a year and that’s the day the calves are sold.”
“You can budget based off speculation but until the cheque is in your hands, it’s all up in the air,” added Shuckburgh. “Youhave to truly love what you are doing to live like this. The last two years have been great as far as cattle prices go, but many years prior this was not the case.”
Shuckburgh mentioned that increasing land cost is another issue.
“Land prices continue to rise,” said Shuckburgh. “The first piece of land we purchased 15 years ago goes for the same amount as the land we bought two years ago, which has now doubled, so the land payment cuts deep into your bottom lineas time goes on.”
According to Shuckburgh, many grain farmers continue to expand as they are forced to farm more acres, and it works the same way for beef producers as far as increasing input cost.
“When this happens you find a lot more land being used to grow cash crops as the landlord often makes more money off of simple cash rent as against pasture rent,” added Shuckburgh. “As time goes on with margins shrinking on what was once a self-sustaining farm, you are often finding the one if not both the husband and wife working off the farm to sustain their way of life.”
Explaining further, Shuckburgh said, “If it sounds like a business, it’s because it is, because a small cattle farmer is a little bit of everything from a veterinarian, mechanic, welder, accountant, carpenter, and equipment operator.”