WESTERN PRODUCER — A disrupted international border in southern Alberta has garnered global attention. Supporters from across Western Canada have flocked to the site and contributed money to protesters so they can maintain their dispute with governments regarding pandemic-related mandates.
It is unlikely the protesters will be the victors in this effort but some of the immediate losers belong to the Canadian cattle industry.
Politics aside, whenever there is a new cost in agriculture, it will ultimately be borne by farmers — not always immediately, but eventually. The closure or traffic slowing at the Coutts border crossing into the United States is costing agriculture, mainly the livestock sector.
The Coutts-Sweetgrass crossing is a vital link in an already cracked supply chain. But cattle liners and produce-containing refrigeration trucks have been stuck at times behind a fully closed highway or one on which traffic is drastically slowed.
Rerouting trucks isn’t always a viable option. Inspection stations for live animals and food only exist in specific locations. While other crossings are available for some agricultural goods, those at Emerson, Man., Aldergrove, B.C. and Coutts, Alta., are the only ones with USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service staff.
Large businesses, including major meat packers and food processors, don’t take chances on logistics planning. They will move product where they can be assured it will pass unhindered. If that means hauling further, they may do it, but it will be expensive.
The North American demand for meat remains strong but the ability to meet that demand is weak. COVID-19 heavily disrupted packer operations in southern Alberta. Attracting labour in the current economy is a challenge, as are the COVID operational protocols.
Suppliers of materials for packers are also challenged, which further slows meat processing lines. The two largest facilities in Alberta have been operating at capacity, or were, until the border disruption. Their freezers only hold so much, so packers will curtail operations rather than accumulate stalled inventory.
Cattle feeders are backed up and southern Alberta’s current basis for fat cattle shows it. Keeping cattle on feed longer, especially with high feed prices, is hurting their bottom lines.
Fat cattle that move south to Utah and Colorado tend to pass through Coutts, as does incoming dried distillers grain, corn and other feeds. With feed in short supply due the drought, that too is driving up costs for cattle feeders.
Packers have only one direction to push new costs due to slowed inventory movement and that is down. Feedlots have only one direction to push the new costs of holding cattle and that is down. And down is where cow-calf producers live.
The border protest had its initial impetus from the Canadian government’s mandated vaccine requirement, or a two-week isolation, for truck drivers returning from the U.S. However, there is also an American regulation that keeps Canadian drivers from entering the U.S. in the first place unless they are vaccinated.
The protesters demand that all governments remove vaccine restrictions, though provincial and federal governments have indicated that will not be forthcoming.
The border blockade and the ongoing trucker convoy and protest in Ottawa illustrate Canadians’ collective frustration with the pandemic that has engendered mandates. The emotion is understandable, even if the methods aren’t universally embraced.
Ironically, a great deal of support for the Alberta border closure protest has come from the farm community, one of the only sectors that will suffer significant damage because of it.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.