Calgary (Rural Roots Canada) — With cases of COVID-19 surfacing amongst the workforce at meatpacking plants across Canada and the U.S., it has forced them to slow down their operations as they work to deal with the infections.

As a result, in the cattle industry, it is forcing feed yards to hold back their livestock as there is nowhere for them to take their cattle to be processed.

National Cattle Feeder’s Association President and CEO Janice Tranberg says feedlot owners will be able to weather the storm for the next couple of weeks, but after that, they will have to look at options on to manage it.

She says if product is slowed much more or completely stopped for a time that is going to cause cattle to start to back up.

“Our producers are going to have to respond by holding cattle back, and that certainly means that there is going to be a constriction in the feed yards that they are going to have to keep the cattle on a maintenance feed longer, it means they don’t have room to bring in their feeder cattle.  So the back-up kinda goes all the way down the line,” Tranberg said.

She says producers will be taking the cattle off a growth ration and putting them on maintenance rations as the animals get held back.

“In this situation, we are also dealing with live animals, so you have to take into consideration animal welfare and the fact that we still need to have these animals moved through the process.”

The positive to take away from all of this, according to Tranberg, is that Alberta Health Services and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are working closely with the plants, and the plants are doing everything they can to step it up and to ensure that their employees are safe.

“The good news is plants have not been completely closed down.   So production is still occurring at a very much reduced rate.”

Government Help?

Tranberg says their priority right now is to try and make sure the packing plants continue to operate and to keep the governments up to speed with the situation producers are facing.  They have presented a couple of options to the government to help with business risk management so we can manage the flow and let the markets take care of themselves appropriately and help farmers in the short-term.

“In the long term we need to be prepared how are we going to hold back the cattle and that kinda comes to the option of potentially a  set-aside program where the industry can hold to their cattle for longer, and there will be some assistance from the government to help offset the extra costs while holding their cattle back.”

The set-aside program was utilized in 2003 during the BSE crisis.

Timing

Tranberg is looking at the timing of this as another positive saying if it had happened a couple of weeks from now; there would have been an even larger bottleneck.

“If we had gotten closer to the spring when we’re looking more at the feeder cattle movement that would have caused bigger constriction.  So if we can get the cattle moving at this time, that’s more of a positive.”

Tranberg adds the other big positive to take from all of this is that they know that COVID-19 doesn’t impact food safety so people can feel free to go to their market and enjoy their beef.
“We got grilling season coming up if we can get out and grill, so that is a good opportunity, and beef demand is continuing.”