Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

Ranch Musings: Diversity and Opportunity in the meat chain

Columnist David Zirnhelt writes about beef production and the local supply chain

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

Out of the adversity created by the recent pandemic, could come an opportunity. I referred to this opportunity last week when I alluded to the “supply chain” that brings us our food.

I concentrate on the main local protein supply chain- beef. In BC, a recent study of food security cited a 64% self-reliance on meat and alternatives. But in food grain we are only 14% self- reliant. In fruit, this figure is 159%, and dairy 57%.

These gaps are the opportunities I speak of.

In the US, and I think here too, retail prices of meat is going up significantly while the rancher is getting less that before the crisis (pandemic).

Producers are faced with keeping the cattle longer on feed when they are ready for slaughter which costs more and blocks immature cattle from having space to be placed to grow.

What does it take to turn this adversity into an opportunity? It will take leadership, risk taking, and ingenuity to say nothing of the entrepreneurship required to construct the businesses and the business relationships (strategic alliances).

We in the beef cattle business have become complacent because some large businesses , the feedlots and the abattoirs, have willingly taken our product, mostly calves and some older cattle readied for the finishing part of getting the cattle ready for slaughter.

The large packing plants thrive on mass production such that workers often have poor pay and working conditions. The Tyson plants in the US have 4500 workers with COVID-19. There have been 18 deaths and there is no paid sick leave for the workers.

It is hard to have workers six feet apart the way the “disassembly” plants are designed for maximizing productivity.

This opportunity might be for smaller abattoirs which concentrate on a safe, humanely raised and finished meat product.

If we continue to pay attention to the health of all the links in the production and supply chain, and link value (healthy) to the chain, then we have a product with a place in the supply of a major food product for us at home and in the world.

We need to collaborate –producers, processors, and marketers- to rebuild the food supply system. More diversity in size and location should make the overall system more resilient under pressure than the current system is.

To do this there will need to be an attitude shift that we want to work together to build a stronger chain of supply. You know the story that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Collaboration, that is working with others in the interest of all involved, will be the business and social value that underpins rebuilding this part of the economy. Too few(big) players may be the weak link as we are seeing now.

I said at the beginning, retail prices of meat are going up but the cattle producers are losing money. The news has just reported that in the US, the Justice department is examining this dilemma. Something is rotten in the meat supply chain.

Producers need well integrated alternatives and which serve a different market, and which reflects the reality that we are all in this together: producers, processors and retailers.

READ MORE: Ranch Musings: Local food (protein) supply in these COVID times

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