Driving down dusty, old Alberta roads, barbed wire fences line the fields. Cattle are grazing on open pasture and the setting sun paints the sky red and orange. Farming and ranching has always been a major part of culture on the prairies. Raising cattle is more than a food source- it is a way of life for many in this province. Yet despite life on the farm seeming blithe and swell, farming in these tough economic times is not for the faint of heart.
“The ranching ethos is close affinity with the land and stewardship,” said Max Foran, a University of Calgary Communication and Culture professor. “Ranching makes a cultural statement. The cowboy sort of spirits, living close with nature.”
However, high grain prices and production costs paired with stiff export regulations to the United States have left cattle farmers in Alberta with the lowest number of cattle herds in more than a decade, according to a February 17 Calgary Herald article. The number of cattle farms across Canada has declined drastically- only 99,265 farms support cattle in Canada, the lowest number on record since 1931. Live cattle exports fell 32 per cent last year.
“The industry has to work on changing attitudes. The beef industry needs to continue to become more cost effective, to produce a better product and convince the people that not only is it cheap enough to buy, but that it is not going to hurt you,” said Foran.
In days of yore
Cattle farming has a long history in Alberta. Livestock from the western U.S. arrived in the British Columbia interior in the late 1850s, migrating quickly through the Rocky Mountain foothills, southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. In the 1880s, the Canadian Pacific Railway reached the prairies and interest in ranching grew. Most of the settlers were upper-class Englishmen with sufficient capital to establish their own open-range ranches where cattle were left in the fields to fend for themselves. This era died out quickly as ranchers faced the costs of feeding and housing the animals in winter. Shortly after the First World War, open-range ranches turned into small family-owned farms primarily exporting to Britain. After the Second World War the export focus switched to the U.s. With the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada and the U.S. have continued to merge economies, leaving cattle farmers dependent on export to the U.S. Competitive meat packing companies vying for renowned Alberta beef meant producers were getting a good price for their cattle.
Compared to its origins, cattle farming has changed “like day and night,” said Clarence Knutson, a central Alberta rancher. “Thirty years or so ago you couldn’t keep much cattle. Now there are more efficient ways of feeding with feed trucks. You can produce more meat at a lower cost.”
The Knutsons run a backgrounding farm, where they support cattle from birth until auction after about a year. Background feeding relies heavily on a combination of grass and grain feed to increase a calf’s weight before it’s shipped to a feedlot.
“Calves are born in mid-April out in the bush. In mid-July they are brought back and branded, castrated and vaccinated. In October they are weaned from their mothers. We size them and put the cows into groups. The 500-pound calves are grouped together and the 700lb calves together,” explained Knutson. “We do this so they eat better and the larger calves are not taking over. The cows are then fed rations of grain, silage and minerals. At about a year, or 800lbs, we sell the calves to the feedlots. Cattle can’t be exported if they are over two years.”
The feedlots are where the cows are “beefed up” for export. Hormones and steroids are given in order to increase the weight and therefore the profit.
Feedlots and packers
Feedlots have come under considerable media scrutiny for high disease levels, pollution and unethical treatment of animals.
“However, [the] mortality rate in feedlots is only about one or two per cent,” said Doug Price, an Alberta Cattle Feeders board member and feedlot owner. “You could argue that if you left the cattle out in the pasture the mortality rate would be higher.”
Sick cows are taken out of the pen and placed in the sick area. If the livestock’s temperature is over 40.6 ˚C, antibiotics are administered.
“We don’t use drugs if we don’t need to. The slaughter house will randomly test meat and if there is any drug residue, you are in big trouble.”
Each animal is evaluated by feedlot employees and any animal with antibiotics in its system is not sent to slaughter.
“I don’t think that any creature deserves that,” said Foran. “To live in the muck and the slush and the sickness, it is demeaning.”
“Feedlots are not good for the environment because of the concentration of manure. But also, they are using many other resources, having to haul cattle to and from the feedlots and the grain,” argued Colleen Biggs, owner and operator of TK Ranch, a free-range grass-fed ranch located 230 kilometres east of Red Deer.
“Alberta didn’t end up with a viable feedlot until the early ’60s,” said Foran.
Before that, all cattle were exported to the U.s. to finish.
After the factory farming model became conventional in the cattle industry, large multinational corporations dictated the prices producers got for their livestock and grain. Producers felt the pressure to produce more meat, but had to find ways to lower production costs to remain competitive. The answer was more animals in a smaller space.
Once in the feedlot system, a calf’s diet changes from grass to grain, which is high in octane. The sudden change can cause ulcers, liver disease and acidosis. Additional hormones allow cows to grow more quickly with less food, increasing cost-benefits for both the consumer and the producer.
Before the factory farming era, it took four to five years for a cow to reach the proper weight to slaughter. Now cows are sent to slaughter shortly after their first birthday.
“Without hormones it would be more expensive to feed the cattle,” said Price, a feedlot owner. “The hormones are totally safe and have no health effects on humans.”
It would cost about $100 more to feed a cow to size without hormones and producers would be stuck with the difference.
“By the time a cow arrives at the feedlot they lose about 12 per cent of their body weight,” said Biggs. Stress from travelling in a confined space gives many calves shipping fever.
“So of course they need growth hormones once they get to the feedlot.”
Up until the 1980s, beef packing plants were spread across the province. In 1978, Alberta had 17 medium-sized beef packing plants, each capable of slaughtering about 2,800 cattle per week. Today, 89 per cent of Canada’s cattle are slaughtered by Cargill Foods, Tyson Foods or Xl Packers. The largest of these plants is able to kill up to 28,000 cattle per week. Prior inefficiency was cited for consolidation of the industry, but with less competition producers are receiving lower prices. Smaller plants that operated before 1980 managed to pay farmers double what today’s more “efficient” plants pay. These companies- the Wal-Marts of the ranch lands- have established enterprises in rural Alberta, where land could be purchased cheaply and unions were uncommon, taking over small family farms and transforming the industry.
The federal and provincial governments subsidize the beef industry and encourage monopolies. In the 1980s the Alberta government gave Cargill $4 million to build a meat packing plant in High River. They also gave Lakeside Packers (now Tyson Foods) up to
$16 million in loans and grants helping them become one of the largest slaughter and beef-processing plants in Canada.
From 1942 to 1989, beef prices fluctuated between $1.30 per pound and $2.80 per pound. In 1980, with the consolidation of the beef industry and Cargill’s takeover of the High River packing plant, prices dropped back to $1.30 per pound. In May 2003, with the onset of BSE, prices dropped to an unmanageable 50 cents per pound.
Adjusted for inflation, current cattle prices are at par with those during the Great Depression, according to a report published by the National Farmers Union.
As the feedlot and slaughterhouses gained economic power, they also gained political influence. The Alberta government has allowed feedlot operations to continue despite bad environmental practices and labour code violations.
In the town of Brooks, about
200 kilometres east of Calgary, studies conducted on air and water quality in the feedlot vicinity show high emission rates of ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and hydrocarbons. Brooks also possesses one of the largest slaughterhouses in Alberta, with the capacity to slaughter over 4,500 cows daily- more than 30,000 per week. Such large capacity raises food safety concerns and is irreconcilable with sustainable environmental practices.
The feedlot and meat packing industry is cited as being one of the most dangerous places to work with some of the worst working conditions and highest injury rates in the country. In the early 1970s, meatpacking had one of the lowest turnover rates of any industrial job, but now, with low wages, cut benefits and poor unions, worker turnover has increased.
The inability to keep a consistent employee base forced feedlots to bring in workers through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. In 2008, Alberta was supporting approximately 57,000 temporary foreign workers who have made hundreds of complaints to the Alberta Federation of Labour, a collection of unions. The many concerns voiced include significantly lower than promised wages, racism, exploitative employers and co-workers and threats of deportation and imprisonment if workers complain about working conditions, reports the federation.
The evolution of factory farming and feedlot finishing changed Alberta’s cultural landscape. The little house on the prairie philosophy where neighbours know and trust each other is gone. The demographics of small prairie towns are changing, bringing with them a new set of social dilemmas- migrant worker injustices, increased crime rates in rural towns as well as a rise in suicide, divorce and alcoholism.
The consolidation of the cattle industry has forced small family-owned business to reassess their operations. Colleen and Dylan Biggs of TK Ranch are trying an alternative approach to cattle ranching. They are one of the first producers to offer grass-fed beef in Alberta. Actively promoting sustainable agriculture and direct marketing, they fight the corporate consolidation that often drives many small family farms to bankruptcy.
“Seventy-four per cent of farmers have to work full-time off the farm and then come back and work on the farm full-time also in order to support their business,” said Colleen Biggs.
“Kids have seen their parents worked to death on the farm and then, in the end, still have to sell the farm to pay off debt. Something has to change. We have to create something to allow our children to survive on.”
Research conducted in Wales and England has indicated farming as a high-risk occupation for suicide. Higher than average rates of suicide in farmers and ranchers have been reported in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Scotland and the U.S.
“Something has to change,” said Biggs. “Small farms can’t compete with multinational corporations. More money needs to go into the pockets of producers. The government needs to take some leadership and the politicians need to look at solving issues locally. We are moving into a crisis,” Colleen Biggs said. “I am not trying to bash the industry. I am trying to make a living in a system that is not set up for success.”
The beef produced on the TK Ranch is natural grass-fed beef. Organic foods and farming practices have been gaining more popularity in Alberta in recent years, but the reality is that the cattle industry does not support unconventional farming practices. It is more difficult to obtain bank loans and insurance. Biggs believes, however, that to protect the environment and animal welfare a new approach to ranching is needed.
“We start calving later, usually not until May. We calf out on the prairie pasture and not in small pens,” she explained. “Another difference is that we use a freeze branding rather than the typical hot iron brand. This produces much less stress for the animal- with hot iron branding, it is usually followed by screaming and bellowing of the calf.”
Freeze branding damages the hair’s follicles, causing them to turn white. The downside to this process is that it takes several weeks for an animal’s hair to turn white, leaving the farmers fearing their animal will be
stolen and sold, thus impeding the wide acceptance of freeze branding.
TK Ranch also puts a major focus on food safety. Antibiotics and hormones are never used.
“We don’t feel it is necessary,” said Biggs. “Other farmers do it because they get more money for the animal when they sell it. Our reasons for not implanting growth hormones into our cattle is not one of whether it is right or wrong, we do it because that is what our costumers want. We don’t get into speculation. I’ll let the scientist argue that.”