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Well-known member
Feb 10, 2005
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Southern Manitoba
The nightmare won't go away

One BSE case still hurting cattle farmers


"I want to stress that this is one cow."

Who knew, two years after then-federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief made that statement while announcing Canada's first native case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, that one cow would bring a multi-billion dollar industry to its knees?

This Friday marks two years since the U.S., along with 50 other countries, closed its border to Canadian live cattle and beef after a cow from Marwyn Peaster's ranch in Wanham, Alta., tested positive for BSE.

While most beef cuts have been allowed back into the U.S., the initial move and the continued ban on live animals have crippled the mighty Canadian beef industry -- which has been forced to not only continue crossing its fingers and lobbying for the border to reopen -- but also to take a good, long look at itself.

"It's been a struggle for everybody," said Catherine Collingwood, office manager at Southeast Livestock. "It's hit everybody all the way along. It's not just the farmers, it's the small rural communities -- it's everybody.

"We've seen a lot of despair. We've seen a lot of people who are coming in here just trying to make ends meet."


Everyone from ranchers to auctioneers to equipment dealers to truckers has been affected by the crisis -- not to mention the store owners and service providers with whom they spend their money.

But there seems to be universal agreement it's the ranchers who took the hardest hit because not only were they stuck with a product nobody wanted, but one that needs to eat.

Manitoba's ranchers relied heavily on abattoirs in the U.S. to butcher their cattle and for foreigners to eat their meat. Immediately after the border closed, the Canadian packing houses were bursting at the seams but still had nowhere to ship the meat, which ushered in the era of community support barbecues designed to help eat our way out of the dilemma.

Once beef from animals younger than 30 months was allowed south, that helped the situation a little, but still left ranchers with older animals that were virtually worthless.

Before BSE, an older or "cull" cow would fetch between 55 and 60 cents per pound, said Keith Robertson, executive director of the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association. During the height of the crisis that price dipped as low as 5 cents per pound and now sits at between 15 and 20 cents, he said.

Prices for animals under 30 months old went from about $1.09 per pound pre-BSE to as low as 35 cents and now sit around the 80-cent mark, said Robertson.

A few producers have quietly gotten out of the business, but most are just tightening their belts and waiting, he said.

There has been some effort to increase domestic slaughter capacity and to sell to markets like China and Russia, but most producers continue to struggle, said Robertson.

Other sectors of the industry have been nailed, too. Buddy Bergner, an auctioneer and field representative with the Interlake Cattlemen's Co-op in Ashern, said his commissions have dropped with cattle prices.

"It's affected our business in the cow and bull trade quite a bit," he said. "The feeder market is actually not that bad, but the cow and bull market is absolutely horrible."

Collingwood's business, which used to primarily export cattle to the U.S., also took a hit.

"For the first little while it really hit us hard. We really had to be creative as far as maintaining a business is concerned," she said, noting the company has changed its focus and managed to expand the end of its operations that exported cattle to Quebec.

Ross Tufford, who owns Ag West Equipment in Portage la Prairie, said his farm equipment isn't flying off the shelves.

"The mad cow thing has affected our business dramatically. The cattle producers just don't have the disposable income to replace or upgrade their old equipment," he said, noting sales of hay tools and chore tractors are way down.

Meanwhile, livestock trucking companies which used to haul 100 to 120 loads of cattle south every week have had to shift their focus to hogs and to moving cattle within Canada, said Bob Dolyniuk, general manager of the Manitoba Trucking Association.

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