September 2005 - The BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) crisis has claimed many victims over the past two years. While the border closure has obviously hurt the cattle industry, it has also affected other ruminant industries along the way.
The U.S. border was closed to all livestock, regardless of any connection to BSE, and Alberta?s sheep producers have been especially hard hit. Although sheep under 12 months are once again allowed across the American border, it is doubtful that trade will resume to the level it had been prior to the border closure.
"The sheep industry has been by far harder hit than the cattle industry," said Floyd Williams, Alberta Sheep and Wool Commission (ASWC) chairman. "We?ve had a lot of producers who got out of the business, because the markets had turned downward so quickly and stayed down compared to what we had."
Prior to May 2003, American markets accepted ?heavies? ? heavier lambs than are sold in Canada. When the border closed, there was nowhere to put heavies, resulting in an overabundance of animals. Canadian producers had been shipping more than 100,000 head a year into the United States before the border closed and have had to move away from raising the larger animals.
"In the first year, many of the producers had no market for their lambs ... it took six or seven months after the border closed until we got rid of the overweight lambs," Williams said.
The industry has had to adapt in order to survive and Alberta producers have had to shift focus toward other markets ? notably Ontario.
"It has changed our industry and our marketplace significantly," ASWC manager Grant Massie said. "I think it?s actually changed the way a lot of our producers are looking at the industry as far as how the business works."
According to Williams, the forced changes have had a positive effect.
"In reality, by not using the American market we were able to expand our markets," he said, "particularly in Ontario and in smaller centers in western Canada, where the producer sold directly to the consumer, and that has more than doubled since BSE."
There have also been several key economic shifts over the past two years, which will likely have an effect on the resumption of trade now that the ban has been lifted, including escalating fuel costs and a higher-valued Canadian dollar.
"I?m not sure if there is a lot of advantage in shipping to the U.S. or not," Williams added. "We?ve lost a lot of infrastructure, particularly the trucking industry as far as specialized sheep trailers and things like that."
Moreover, the new protocols which must be undertaken are much more extensive than in the past, especially for feeder lambs.
"They?re talking about a cold or a hot brand on the sheep, which I?ve never heard of ever happening before, and a lot more paper work and veterinarian inspection on the Canadian side before those lambs can cross that border," Williams said. "That?s going to be a detriment to moving back into the American side of things."
While the sheep industry appears to be evolving, the latest news from the cattle industry front is that Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has imposed a $3 to $5 inspection fee per head on Canadian cattle entering his state. Canadian Cattlemen?s Association communications manager Cindy Williams called the move a protectionist measure aimed at hampering trade with Canada.
Reprinted from the Airdrie Echo in Canada