Ottawa

Shortage of slaughterhouse space costing meat buyers, farmers alike

Cattle farmers in the Ottawa Valley say a bottleneck at Ontario abattoirs is driving beef prices up and their own profits down.

Prices for beef going up, but Ottawa Valley farmers say they're not profiting

Cows and their calves graze in an Alberta pasture in 2019. Eastern Ontario beef producers say there's a bottleneck at local slaughterhouses that's causing prices to rise — but that's not coming with any additional profits. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Cattle farmers in the Ottawa Valley say a bottleneck at Ontario abattoirs is driving beef prices up and their own profits down.

Limited availability in abattoirs is a longstanding problem in the region, but COVID-19 outbreaks and shutdowns at meat processing plants throughout the pandemic have brought the situation to a head.

"The best way to describe it is that the province has allowed ... monopolies on the larger slaughter plants," said Joe Wilson, president of Ottawa Beef Farmers.

"And with the COVID-19 issue, those slaughter plants had to be closed down a couple of times in the last few months because they can't keep staff in the buildings. So that kill space isn't there to supply the demand."

Global beef prices have been rising for nine straight months, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. In Canada, experts say meat prices have gone up steadily since the start of 2021, and beef prices could rise even higher this summer.

But when prices rise, cattle farmers aren't the ones profiting, Wilson said, as those who sell their cows at auction have little control over the prices they see in return.

"You're at their mercy. It doesn't matter," he said. 

Prices steady since 2015

The average price for a full-weight steer in Ontario has held steady since a short-lived spike in 2015, according to the Beef Farmers of Ontario.

But according to several farmers who spoke to CBC Ottawa, the cost to feed those cows has skyrocketed.

When COVID-19 shuttered large abattoirs, farmers said they were left with a glut of cows and nowhere to slaughter them. Delays at the processing stage are costly, as overfed cows quickly chew through farmers' profits.

"The input costs are continuing to rise, but they're not seeing a rise in their price," said Ab Carroll, field representative for the Ontario Stockyards cattle auction. 

Declining availability in abattoirs means even cattle farmers like Eva Hatiarova who sell straight to consumers are impacted. 

When the pandemic hit, concerns about food insecurity drove up demand for local grass-fed beef, said Hatiarova, a farmer at Dobson's Grass Fed Beef Farm near Pembroke, Ont.

Selling directly to consumers shielded Dobson's from market fluctuations, Hatiarova said, but finding "availability at the butcher" became the big problem.

Ab Carroll, seen here in early 2020, says more competition is needed in Canada to address the situation. (Livestock Markets Assoc. of Canada)

'We need more players'

Willie Sharpe, owner of Opeongo Springs, a longhorn farm near Eganville, Ont., also sells straight to consumers. He said he's feeling similar pressures of rising costs as farmers who sell their cattle at auction.

"Things that would be driving that price, whether it be feed prices or hay prices or anything around that, we experience the same thing," he said.

No matter how farmers bring their cattle to market, a lack of abattoir capacity is a shared concern.

"The best solution would be to have more plants and more competition here in Canada — more federally licensed harvest plants here in Ontario," said Carroll. "We need more players."

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