How BSE shrunk the cow herd, built feedlots, and forever changed marketing Canadian cattle

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

The immediate impact of finding a BSE-positive cow in Alberta in 2003 was swift and brutal. Overnight, Canada’s export market evaporated and prices for cattle, especially older animals, tanked.

As we look back on the decades that have followed, the longer-lasting impacts have been monumental, but not necessarily as clear.

To dive in to what happened to cattle markets in the first days, weeks, and months following May 20, 2003,  we go to Anne Wasko of the Gateway Livestock Exchange, for a very different discussion than the usual Beef Market Update.

As Wasko explains in the video below, the immediate ramifications weren’t totally clear at first. 2o years ago, news didn’t spread at the rapid pace it does now. Wasko was working for CanFax at the time, and she remembers taking call after call from ranchers asking for news and when the U.S. border would reopen to Canadian cattle. (more below)

Initially, cattle prices in the U.S. edged higher, as supply was pinched, a move that was incredibly difficult for Canadian ranchers to face. But soon after, the U.S. had its own BSE case and the market did pull back, but nothing like it did north of the border, Wasko says.

In the months and years that followed, shifts in the cow herd trended higher — as cows had no market and were retained — but, then, and ever since, the Canadian cow herd started to shrink.

But not all changes were negative in the long-term. Canada’s feedlot sector, out of necessity and economics, expanded in the years following BSE.

“If you go back two years before BSE, we would export a half a million head of feeder cattle or more, 600,000 head of feeder cattle a year. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Wasko says. “So more of those cattle that used to be fed in the U.S. are being fed in Canada. I guess that’s a good thing, but I think it’s largely driven by the increased cost and regulation and paperwork to get cattle across the border, which still exists today, 20 years later.”

Wasko shares that the underlying feeling of the day was fear. There was so much unknown and so many people’s livelihoods were at risk, and in the end, the BSE crisis did cut short many ranchers’ careers. Looking back, Canada now has 40 per cent fewer beef farms and 25 per cent fewer cows than 2003. It’s an incredible amount of loss in such a short amount of time.

One of the other positive things that has changed since BSE is harder to measure but real nonetheless. “I think we have gotten better about diversifying and thinking about ourselves in a broader way, in terms of our industry. We’re not just an offshoot of the U.S.,” she says.

BSE was disastrous to our cash market, and that, perhaps, has pushed more contracting, more forward thinking and planning in the beef supply chain, Wasko says. There have been changes, too, to processing capacity and how plants are run. All of that stems from the need to keep cattle home during those years following 2003.

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