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Telling Stories: Manitoba’s Cattle Industry

October 23, 2016 8:23 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Cattle Farm

NEEPAWA, Man. — For an industry wanting to tell its story, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of information. For the agricultural industry, the time to gather that information is now. In the coming years, the industry is going to face an increasing number of outside challenges, from concerns over the environmental impacts of various agricultural activities, to the pricing of carbon that we know is coming sooner or later, the industry needs to be able to tell its story with facts and figures.

The cattle industry, in particular, has taken some public abuse in recent years. Citing concerns over deforestation to create grazing, potential adverse health risks associated with a red meat diet and animal husbandry practices that are seen as inhumane, groups are encouraging consumers to move from a meat-based diet.

For the industry, some of these are legitimate concerns, some are overblown, but the flip side is that very rarely are the positives of the industry brought forward. Increasingly, this must be a priority, not just a side project. Producer groups need to ensure that not only is the information there, they must also be active in telling their stories.

In order to tell their stories, the first step is gathering information. Within the last month, two groups issued press releases announcing industry specific research that will make it easier.

The first was the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, which provides a national voice for Canadians who produce and use forage and hay products. Their research found that the forage industry had a direct economic impact of $5.09 billion dollars and represents the country’s third most valuable crop, just behind wheat ($5.2 million) and canola ($7.3 million), based on the 2011 census.

While its value might be lower, it’s actually the largest land use sector in Canada. Many Canadians would likely be surprised to learn that cultivated forages, used for pasture, feed and seed production, totaled 33.8 million acres, or 39 percent of Canadian land devoted to crop production.

Beyond that, the forage industry is the foundation for the beef and dairy industries, which contribute $11 billion in direct value and over $50 billion in total economic activity to the Canadian economy.

In early October, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef released the findings of their two-year “farm to fork” study. In the study, they looked at the environmental, social and economic performance of the Canadian beef industry, as well as setting out a strategy to advance and measure sustainability efforts going forward. The organization noted that it was the first of its kind for the Canadian beef industry and that this science-based information would allow them to communicate more effectively with partners, stakeholders and the public.

The results give the industry some very positive findings they can use to tell their story to the general public. They found that Canada is a very efficient beef producer when it comes to greenhouse gas. They also found that land use for beef production has a number of positive external benefits, including providing 68 per cent of the potential wildlife habitat on the agricultural landscape. The land used for beef production currently stores about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. The blue water footprint of Canadian beef is also relatively low, thanks to low levels of irrigation to grow feed and highly efficient systems.

Canadian beef also scored well on working conditions and scored very well when it comes to animal health and welfare. On an issue of great importance to many Canadians, the study found that thanks to the uptake of best-practices, training, measuring and monitoring, antimicrobial misuse, which includes antibiotics, was found to be low risk.

Consumers increasingly want more information about the food they eat and its impact on the greater world. Agricultural groups need to have this information at their fingertips and be ready to use it.