Manitoba Beef Sector Sizzles

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Amid all of the bad news in the grain industry and the conflicts over expansion in the hog industry, one segment of farming, the beef business, is doing quite nicely, thank you very much. Prices have been high and, the current price downturn notwithstanding, the future looks bright.

There are many reasons for this not the least of which has been the roaring economy of the last few years. When times are good, steak is on the bar-b-cue. Also, beef production is a fairly labour intensive enterprise and does not lend itself to mechanization and technological development as does the grain industry. Thus beef is rarely in over supply. As well, there is very little government meddling in the cattle business. Cattle ranchers epitomize rugged independence and resent any government efforts to “help” them. This lets the marketplace determine production, quality, and supply.

The beef industry has made some impressive marketing breakthroughs featuring low fat beef products and innovative advertising not to mention that “Where’s the Beef” has become a fixture in our language. Beef consumption, after years of decline, is on the upswing again.

Rural Manitoba is on the verge of a “Beef Boom” similar in scope to our hog expansion. There is already a quiet migration of Alberta ranchers to Manitoba who cannot believe how cheap the land is. Not only that, we have higher rainfall. In fact one transplanted Albertan noted that he gets three acres in Manitoba for every one in Alberta! And its better land!

There’s a real environmental upside to beef as well. Cows need grass and hay (and convert this non-human food to human food), which may not seem a big deal but grass and hay are perennial plants that cover the land with a permanent layer of vegetation. This prevents soil from washing away during rains and windstorms. And provides cover for wildlife such as nesting ducks and songbirds.

It is always irritating to read the attacks on the cattle industry both from animal rights and environmental extremists. If there was ever an agricultural product that promoted animal welfare, soil conservation, and wildlife production it’s beef. In fact one of the best wildlife conservation techniques is to use cattle in place of the buffalo which are (lamentably) long gone. Many wildlife species depend on a grazed environment and if you don’t have buffalo, cattle are the next best thing.

Ah ha, you say, what about Walkerton and water quality? By the way, it was human stupidity, and not agriculture, that caused this tragedy. Well, as usual the cattle-water quality story is not that simple. With new fencing and grazing techniques, we can get cattle away from streams, ensure that adjacent pasture land holds water, conserve water quality and preserve riverbank habitats. Oh yeah, the rancher even makes more money.

Farmers and conservationists working together and applying the newest of technologies are contributing to the new rural renaissance.