Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

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

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

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

When COVID first ramped up in early March, we were just returning from our now-annual holiday in Mexico where sun, sea and relaxation recharge our mood and physical health.

We were not concerned about being infected by the virus because we had been to visit a doctor for other reasons and were assured we were OK.

However, literally overnight, as we returned to Vancouver, the recommendation of voluntary isolation for 14 days was being put out in the media, and Mexico was put on the list of countries to be concerned about.

So it was a no-brainer to self-isolate, which is quite easy if you have freezers full of food and willing people to shop for us.

We had the feeling of what it must have been like in pandemics of years gone by. No one wanted to be too close or share tools and equipment.

We were relieved when the 14 days passed and no symptoms. Then we had to be on guard not to contract the dreaded disease from others rather than the other way around. We are very aware that being seniors does contribute to our vulnerability.

To keep the ranch running and the cattle fed, we have to visit family members and some near neighbours, but always in a distanced manner.

Then the flood hit us and we were even more isolated. The water rises in the valley and covers the access roads, which means that we must prepare to have our cattle feed and supplies in the right place for the season.

This is the short-term coping. Yes, you can buy bulls, which is an annual event for ranchers ONLINE. And because we are at the beginning of the food supply chain, we are an essential service, as are our suppliers of goods and services.

The bigger picture is different. Stock markets and the commodity system (large-scale beef production, including processing for the retail market) affect us since we don’t finish beef for consumption by people local to B.C.

Only a very small percentage of the beef protein supply is entirely “made in B.C.” If you know some farmer or rancher that has an arrangement with a government-inspected slaughter plant and is allowed therefore to sell retail (to you, the customer), then you are part of a unique minority, even here in the midst of cattle country.

My advice, keep that relationship. If you don’t, then try to build a relationship with someone who can keep up their business. If your preference is for grass-only-fed beef, then remember it takes longer as a rule to finish the animal.

The existence of a lot of grain in Canada makes it possible to use that form of carbohydrates to put on the finishing fat for tenderness and taste preferences of many consumers.

If you like the taste and the production practices of ranchers who rely on short-season availability of high-carb (or sugar) in our hay and pastures, then you have to absorb the slightly higher production costs associated with keeping animals for up to a year longer (approximately to 30 months old, instead of 20).

If you prefer the reliability of more local supply in your food purchases, then loyalty and co-operation of building that “supply chain” will take some time since we don’t have the local processing facilities.

Why don’t we? They have smaller turnover and are out-competed by the larger mass-production plants in Alberta. Now we see governments in the U.S. compelling packing plants to stay open even with COVID cases in their midst. One U.S. plant had 900 COVID cases.

Evening out the supply of local beef to match the availability of local processing (most people have their beef ready in the fall) is a huge challenge and will require collaboration such as we have not seen in many years.

Think ahead about where your safe meat is going to come from.

Next week I will write more about the challenges in the local “supply chain.” Keep thinking about others in the community that you might need to rely on in the years to come!

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

READ MORE: Ranch Musings: The privilege of staying calm in place


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