Alberta ranchers worried about border protest rattling cattle sector

Groups representing ranchers and feedlot operators are raising red flag about the economic impact prolonged border disruptions could have on an agricultural sector hit hard during the pandemic.

Cattle groups raising concerns about prolonged disruptions interrupting the movement of cattle, beef and feed

RCMP said Thursday trucks are now crossing the border into Montana. Alberta's cattle industry is raising concerns about what harm continued disruptions could do to supply chains. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Groups representing ranchers and feedlot operators in Alberta are raising concerns about the harm prolonged border disruptions could have on an agricultural sector hit hard during the pandemic.

A demonstration at the U.S.-Canada border at Coutts, Alta., now in its sixth day, is tied to an ongoing, nationwide protest over federal rules for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated truckers entering Canada from the United States. 

The demonstration has seen a number of trucks block the border crossing into the U.S., though protesters opened one lane in each direction on Wednesday. Only limited amounts of traffic are proceeding into Montana.

The uncertain situation spurred three major groups representing the cattle industry to speak out Wednesday, including the Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Cattle Feeders' Association and the Canadian Cattlemen's Association.

Together they are calling for a "timely resolution and the restoration of our essential supply chain."

"Every day the industry is unable to move cattle, beef, or access feed puts the entire supply chain at risk," the groups said in a joint statement on Wednesday morning.

Blockades creating backlogs, groups say

Cattle frequently move between the countries as part of a highly integrated industry. U.S. feed has also been key recently because of the devastating impact of last summer's drought on Western Canada.

Prior to the border protest, the sector was already dealing with limited rail access and trucking shortages. The pandemic has also taken its toll on ranchers' wallets, with backlogs at processing plants squeezing cattle prices.

The blockades at the border are again creating backlogs, the groups say.

"Blocking the transport of beef to cross border consumers is slowing down processing in Canada and creating a backlog at processing facilities, feedlots and farms and ranches," the release says.

"The obstruction is also blocking the growing critical supplies of feed that are needed across western Canada."

Jacob Bueckert, owner of Driland Feeders north of Warner, Alta., says he is scrambling to find feed as the protests continue at the Coutts crossing, about 30 minutes south of his feedlot. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Feedlot owner Jacob Bueckert said he's having to draw from feed reserves and source from alternate suppliers to keep nourishing his estimated 17,000 cattle.

Bueckert owns Driland Feeders north of Warner, Alta. a village about 30 minutes north of the border crossing at Coutts.

He said he supports the protest but has to think about his animals.

"Since Friday, we haven't been able to get any grain across the border from there," he said.

"We support the freedom movement; we're just kind of caught in the middle of it."

Driland would typically receive three to four loads of feed a day from Sweetgrass, Mont., through the crossing. Bueckert estimates with the current amount of feed they have, they could holdout until the end of next week.

Driland Feeders in Warner, Alta. has an estimated 17,000 cattle to feed while supply chain issues and a blockade at the Coutts border continue. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Health of supply chains a concern

Earlier this week, the Canadian Meat Council, which represents the country's federally inspected meat packers and processors, warned an ongoing closure would hurt production. At the time, it said there were over 150 loads of Canadian beef stuck at the Coutts border. 

In an interview, rancher Greg Schmidt, chairman of Alberta Cattle Feeders' Association, said their biggest concern is with the health of supply chains between the two countries.

"We rely pretty heavily on cross-border trade and if we shut off those avenues, it really has quite a trickle down effect throughout our industry," Schmidt said.

He said though a lot of corn is moving on trains from the U.S. for cattle, trucks also play an important role in getting other important feed supplies to Alberta's cattle sector.

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said the people behind the blockade at Coutts have made their point. But if they carry it too far, they risk losing what support they have, he said.

"When it was a protest there over the weekend, that was doing a lot of good, that was making people aware," said Lowe, adding that he hopes things are resolved soon.

"It [the highway] is opening a little bit now, but there'll be quite a backlog of stuff and two lanes isn't going to cut it."

Alberta Agriculture Minister Nate Horner said Wednesday that his department has been working to facilitate alternate routes for producers and address the backlog.

"We have spoken with concerned farmers and ranchers, met with impacted producer groups, and been in contact with processing plants to better understand the ramifications this is having," Horner wrote on Twitter.

"I hope everyone involved can see that the end of COVID restrictions is imminent, and this blockade is hurting our agricultural sector."

With files from Tony Seskus, Jennifer Dorozio and CBC News


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