By Will Verboven, Livestock Industry Commentator
Calgary, Alberta Canada
July 2005 -- I was recently reminded how little issues change in the sheep industry ? only the faces change. Bluetongue is the classic example. It's a 20-year-old story, yet national sheep organizations still struggle to come up with a common-sense position. One of the problems is that they are always looking over their shoulder to see what the government?s position is, and since they are the traditional chief benefactors of national sheep organizations, it doesn't pay (literally) to cross them.
It was the same situation 20-years-ago when the Canadian Cattlemen's Association initiated discussions on eliminating bluetongue regulations. The sheep organization of the day, the Canada Sheep Council (CSC), dithered endlessly, which by default gave Ag Canada the ability to delay any action by claiming it was looking after the interests of the sheep industry ? whether the industry knew it or not.
The assumption was that Canadian purebred-sheep interests were behind the dithering as they saw the existing bluetongue regulations as some sort of trade barrier advantage, particularly in eastern Canada. It never was about a disease threat, as no one could cite a bluetongue case in sheep, past or present, in Canada. Everything was theoretical ? a remarkably similar position that today many Americans have on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and the border closure.
One of the things that may have caused some of the dithering by the CSC of the day was the sudden appearance of the Lamb Feeders of Canada Association (LFCA). This group proved to be something of an annoyance to the CSC because they were seen as trying to usurp the position of the CSC as the national organization of all sheep producers in Canada. Even worse, this group was Alberta-based. At the time, Alberta CSC members were about to leave that organization, which subsequently died.
The LFCA was a unique and progressive group. For one thing, lamb-feedlot operators were few and far between, and second, these operators bought, fed and sold tens-of-thousands of lambs on both sides of the border every year. They all had a much bigger stake in the sheep industry than almost all sheep producers. They were also entrepreneurs and risk-takers in the best Alberta tradition. They liked to look at the big picture and potential opportunities. Another factor was that the number of cattle feedlots in Alberta was booming and, with the same incentives, there was no reason lamb feedlots could not expand in the same way.
What they saw at the time was that the federally inspected lamb plant in Innisfail, Alberta ? Lambco ? was being underutilized and was also importing additional slaughter lambs from the United States. There was the potential to supply Lambco with an additional 100,000 lambs or more. Lambco officials encouraged such thinking, as they saw an opportunity in expanding their marketing into the United States, if they had a consistent year-round lamb supply.
Logistically, there was no reason why that many additional lambs couldn't be fed in Alberta. The feed supply was available and feeding expertise was well-developed. Just one small problem ? the supply of large numbers of even-sized feeder lambs in Western Canada was not enough. That's when the lamb feeders started looking south and found that just across the border in Montana were all the even-consistent feeder lambs they could want. The concept seemed simple enough: buy Montana feeder lambs, feed them in Alberta and sell them to Lambco, who could sell the meat back into the United States. It's a feeding/marketing concept that is still valid even today.
It was at that point when interested lamb feeders ran into the now infamous bluetongue regulations. What they found were regulations that required expensive tests and quarantine time that made the importation of large numbers of feeder lambs from Montana all but impossible. Considering that in parts of southern Alberta and British Columbia, and northern Montana and Washington, sheep can actually watch each other across the border, made the situation look particularly absurd.
The bluetongue regulations were brought to the attention of the CSC of the day ? but true to form, the request was sidetracked or ignored ? most CSC directors apparently could not understand the feeding and marketing potential, or they took their cue from Agriculture Canada. That department was in no mood to encourage such an initiative or bring unwanted attention to the ridiculous bluetongue regulations, especially with the cattlemen already bringing the issue up at meetings.
Because the lamb feeders felt they were being ignored, they formed their own national organization (which I helped form). There were other reasons for its formation, but the new national group felt they would now have a better vehicle to lobby for their cause. As a national organization, federal government officials were obliged to respond to the new groups enquiries and initiatives ? much to the annoyance of the CSC. A meeting was even arranged between the LFCA directors and the present minister of agriculture, Donald Frank Mazankowski.
The LFCA had some impact on the bluetongue regulations when they were amended to allow importations in the winter months (feeder lambs piggy-backed onto the changes made for feeder cattle.) I don't recall much help from the CSC at the time; they may have been oblivious to the intended regulation changes, so that was probably helpful.
For various economic and political reasons, the LFCA group faded from the national scene. Yet the lamb feeding/marketing concept they promoted still makes sense today, all that stands in the way are those absurd bluetongue regulations. But like 20-years-ago, the national sheep organization of today seems to be dithering and following the lead of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Of course now, it's all a moot point with BSE restrictions keeping the border more or less effectively closed to sheep and lamb from Canada. But like forestry sheep grazing, large-scale lamb feeding in Canada seems like another one of those opportunities lost by the sheep industry. It could have been different if more people in positions of authority could have seen the bigger picture. When it comes to the bluetongue issue, my gut feeling is that the sheep industry leadership still doesn't get it ? even 20 years later.
Editor?s note: Will Verboven can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.