The year that was: The good, the bad and ugly in agriculture

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


2016 was certainly a down year overall for the Canadian cattle industry. Prices were down, weather conditions were poor and several government decisions the past year could have serious ramifications for the industry’s bottom line. Ag-Matters recently spoke with Sheri Monk, a freelance journalist who specializes on issues facing the cattle industry in Canada, to get her take on some of these developments.

1. Top Story for 2016: Over 40 farms under quarantine after bovine tuberculosis detected in handful of animals

Monk’s top choice for story of the year is unsurprisingly the bovine TB crisis in southern Alberta. The scale of the quarantine is what makes it a big story, says Monk.
“We are looking at 25,000 head of cattle under quarantine in a huge expansive area,” explains Monk. “And it was sort of a follow up to the story that did become national, which is the population of elk at the Suffield military base. That made headlines this year and the year before; so this followed on its heels.
“Bovine tuberculosis itself isn’t a huge deal. It happens occasionally, and they are not always sure how or why. It was the circumstances around it which made that a big story, and it’s not over yet either.”
Monk says there are two important take home lessons from this crisis the industry needs to be aware of.
“The first is these (quarantined) guys are really taking one for the team, so to speak,” says Monk. “The reason we are doing such a huge quarantine is because what you want to do for OED guidelines or world trade guidelines, is you can have multiple animals that do have TB. But what you have to do is marry that to the first case. That’s why all these animals are considered one large, exposed herd. So that can be classified as one incident.
“So far there have been six positive animals. If each one of those positive results has been its own case, then we would have lost our TB free status, which has huge trade implications. So in this respect, these producers are taking one for the team.”
The second lesson is, perhaps, more positive, says Monk.
“The other thing we have to remember too, I covered a story back in 2007 about a contaminated feed issue, that had thousands of animals that were ultimately under quarantine by CFIA, but we have no compensation for quarantines. We do in CFIA ordered culls, but nothing for quarantines; which can ultimately be even more costly and devastating to the producer.
“This case with bovine tuberculosis has sort of raised that issue and brought it to the forefront. This is something I have been droning on and on for close to ten years. So I am hopeful that maybe something will now come into place.”
Monk says while she feels the CFIA has done a decent job with the current crisis, this quarantine compensation could come back to haunt them if something isn’t done to address the issue.
“What we really need is some mechanism where when the CFIA orders a quarantine producers know they are going to have the resources to continue to feed and house and take care of these animals without having to access third party programs without a delay in accessing those resources,” states Monk bluntly.
“We need our producers to report these health issues, and if they are terrified of the financial ramifications of a quarantine, I think that puts our whole animal food and safety system at risk.”

2. Continuing fallout from Bill 6 in Alberta

“That remains an issue,” says Monk. “In the beginning of 2016, we had the consultation meetings. It was still a heated issue. It has died down somewhat, but it was in many ways a comedy of errors on behalf of province. They were awful communicators, and once they were backed up against the wall, they didn’t want to admit they had rolled it out improperly. And I think ass-backwards.”
Neither the government nor the agricultural community were at their best during the debate, says Monk.
“They should have done the consultations first with the producers,” she clarifies. “So what you have is a very novice government that probably suspects its four year mandate will be its only mandate.
“So, on top of that, it is trying to get through (the legislature) as much as it can. I think the Alberta agricultural community could have responded better as well.
Monk expects more fireworks on this issue again in 2017.

3. Lethbridge County head tax on livestock

According to Monk, this is a story which has widespread repercussions for the Alberta cattle industry as a whole, not just local feedlots. She is not surprised it was so widely reported in the media at the time.
“The ‘sexy’ part of that story, I guess, is the feedlot alley has just been hung out to dry,” says Monk. “They are making the case this is a huge irrigation district. This is a huge farming district, and it’s a huge potato plant district. The county was more than happy to make concessions to lure some potato processing business to the area, but that also contributes a lot to use on the roads… The context of this is you have these municipalities that can kind of operate how they want without a lot of guidelines.”
Monk says the story also, sadly, shows how selfish and divided different sectors of the agriculture industry can be.

“It’s been a tough time for feedlot owners in general,” explains Monk. “They are seeing some contraction in what was a very good cattle market for quite a while. So it’s not an opportune time to bring in this sort of head tax. But I guess the most surprising thing about that, is that the agricultural community can be so divided between sectors or even within a particular sector on these issues.
“We are all interconnected, and we need to stick out our necks for one another to make sure we are all advocating for not just ourselves and our sector, but for the overall health of agriculture in Alberta and across Canada.”

4. The Alberta Carbon Tax

While the full impact of the carbon tax will not be known until 2017, Monk feels it has already started out on a bad foot where some sectors of the agriculture industry are concerned.
“It’s a little bit too soon to tell what the fallout will be,” she says. “But it couldn’t be worse timing than what it is. It’s definitely new ground for Alberta and I am not convinced it’s going to stick forever. There could be offsets at some point which will help stabilize it, but I think at first it’s going to be a little chaotic, and there is a lot of uncertainty out there.”
Monk expects this to be an even bigger story in the new year.

5. The demise of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA)
Monk feels with all the other changes brought in by the NDP government getting a lot of airplay that the demise of ALMA might have fallen through the cracks a bit.
“That’s a huge deal,” she states. “I think it’s a terrible loss for Alberta and for Canada. Everybody was so impressed by this agency, and how it was able to leverage dollars for research and science. And then be able to capitalize on that by actually seeing it go through the private markets.”
Monk, who used to do freelance communications for the agency, says the organization was just hitting its stride when the provincial government yanked the carpet out from underneath it.
“I think the ALMA delivery model was unique, and it certainly garnered a lot of attention in respect in North America. This was probably the most under-reported major news story of the year… I do think that was kind of a sad chapter in Alberta’s agricultural history, for sure.”