Program might quietly disappear — or not

It was one of those government programs that was unwanted, even detested, by most cow/calf producers, but it was a darling

It was one of those government programs that was unwanted, even detested, by most cow/calf producers, but it was a darling of senior department bureaucrats. In fact, it was so much loved by those folks that the government threw millions of taxpayer dollars at the program just to prove it was going to be good for the industry whether they appreciated it or not.

I refer to the much-maligned age verification program that seems in danger of being put out of its misery by bureaucratic stealth. The program will come under review through the government’s own regulatory protocol, where programs and mandates face a five year judgment.

If upon evaluation, the program is deemed to be redundant, no longer being used or unsupportable, it can be arbitrarily removed from the books. However, nothing is for sure as politics is always lying in wait to undermine what seems like common sense.

And as we are exasperatingly aware, agriculture (particularly the livestock sector) is always rife with politics.

To refresh the memories of the innocent, age verification was brought in by the provincial government to address a beef export marketing barrier erected by the Japanese government.

From their own experience with BSE, the Japanese imposed an under-21-month requirement for beef to be exported to their country. That made it very difficult for North American beef exports being the age of slaughter cattle within the desired quality range could vary up to 30 months or more — and there was no absolute way to prove the age — or so it was thought.

The Japanese standard if nothing else proved to an effective non-tariff trade barrier to imported beef — an annoying type of trade barrier so beloved by many beef importing nations.

Marketing strategists within Alberta Agriculture figured that if the Japanese would accept a paper trail as proof of age, then Alberta sourced beef would have a marketing advantage over American sourced beef that would have no age verification — or so they thought. They thought it was such a good idea that they wanted to make it mandatory. The Alberta Beef Producers group didn’t think much of the mandatory aspect, being they figured the market should decide if such a program was needed.

Cow/calf producers instinctively knew that this was just another program where they pay for it whilst someone else up the chain reaped the benefit — and they were right. One could argue that age verified feeder cattle may at times have received a premium when sold by the primary producer — but it was far from consistent. On the other hand cattle feedlot operators did receive premiums from packers for age verified finished cattle — and they were under no obligation to share that windfall with the original producers that verified the calves in the first place. To no one’s surprise they did not share that premium except when market demand absolutely forced them. That’s what killed the credibility of the program with the producer, with the result that voluntary verification was a non-starter.

Not to be thwarted by defiant and common sense producers the provincial government then made the program mandatory. That worked for a very short while until producers figured out there was no way the provincial government could enforce their own regulation. So when all else failed the Alberta government threw in a financial bait — they offered to subsidize the cost of ear tags, but only if producers verified their calves in the program.

That also worked for a while until the subsidies ended. Meanwhile at the export level, those clever Yankee traders convinced the Japanese government to accept dentition as a determination of age for American beef.

Logistically, that proved to be much easier than maintaining a paper trail on each animal. That took the wind out of the Alberta age verification program. Now with the Japanese raising the bar to 30 months, I expect dentition will become the standard.

Hopefully, what has been learned is that the market should be the driver of these types of programs. If buyers aren’t prepared to pay for information on cattle, then sellers shouldn’t be forced to give it to them for free.

— Ahead of the Heard