Oil boom leaves Canada short of cowboys

There’s been a lot of attention paid to how Canada’s oil boom has helped make gasoline cheaper. What many people may not realize is that it’s also driving up prices for burgers and steaks.

Surging energy investment in Prairie Provinces, home to most of the nation’s farms and cattle ranches, has boosted domestic crude output to a record and sent pump prices to a three-year low. That’s led to jobs on drilling rigs or pipe crews paying two-thirds more than those in livestock, luring cowboys and beef-plant workers to the oil patch.

The labor shortage is squeezing a cattle industry already diminished over the past decade by mad cow disease, drought and floods. The herd in Canada, the world’s eighth-largest beef exporter, is the smallest in 21 years. Beef supplies are so tight that Costco Wholesale is importing more meat from the U.S., where prices are the highest ever.

“It’s impossible to find workers,” said Tim Stewart, 57, who has four unfilled jobs and is considering selling the 4,000- head ranch in Rockglen, Saskatchewan, that his family has owned since 1910. “If someone came along with a big fat checkbook, we’d probably walk away.”

In Alberta, Canada’s biggest producer of oil and beef, annual wages for specialized livestock workers was C$44,870, ($39,700) or 63 percent less than petroleum workers at C$73,105, according to a provincial government survey of employers last year. The data showed 72 percent of farm employers experienced hiring difficulties, with 25 percent reporting unfilled vacancies for more than four months.

Meat processors including Cargill Inc. and JBS SA also are affected, with fewer cattle and workers reducing beef output. The slowdown will cost the industry as much as C$300 million this year, even with beef prices at all-time highs, according to the Canadian Meat Council.

At the same time, Canada’s crude reserves, which are the world’s third largest, are attracting $514 billion of planned investment in oil sands production over the next 24 years, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

Output has risen for four straight years, expanding 23 percent to a record average of 3.95 million barrels a day in 2013, according to data compiled by BP Plc. Retail gasoline plunged to C$1.1452 a liter on Nov. 21, the lowest since February 2011, government data show.

“The oil patch is rolling along pretty good right now, and it makes it difficult for agriculture to compete with the same labor force,” said Greg Bowie, chairman of Alberta Beef Producers, a Calgary-based industry group that represents 20,000 producers. “It’s difficult to get and retain good labor, and in a lot of cases, that’s crucial.”

Canadian ranchers held 13.3 million cattle as of July 1, the fewest since 1993, government data show. Since then, heavy rains in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have flooded pastures, damaging forage and boosting feed costs that are forcing ranchers to cut their herds even further.

Beef processors may be forced to reduce plant operations to as low as 70 percent of capacity, the lowest since 2008, because they don’t have enough animals, said Brian Perillat, a senior analyst at Calgary-based Canfax, a livestock industry researcher. Meat packers will probably slaughter as few as 2.4 million head in 2015, the fewest since 1963, he said.

The price of Grade A slaughter cattle in Alberta have surged 40 percent in 12 months to a record C$173.25 per 100 pounds on Nov. 7, the most recent data available for Manitoba’s agriculture department. The cost of feeder cattle, the young animals purchased to be fattened for slaughter on feedlots, are up 74 percent from a year earlier, after reaching an all-time high C$295.50 per 100 pounds in October, the data show.

Supplies also are dropping south of the border in the U.S., after grain costs surged to a record in 2012 and a multiyear drought damaged pastures in Texas, the biggest producer. The herd fell to 87.7 million head on Jan. 1, the smallest for that date since 1951, after the smallest calf crop since 1949, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Cattle futures in Chicago are up 26 percent this year, touching a record $1.7275 a pound on Nov. 19.

Retail ground beef in Canada rose 23 percent in the 12 months through October to a record C$11.74 per kilogram, according to the government. Consumers paid C$21.43 a kilo for sirloin steak in September, also the most ever. In the U.S., where meat prices are rising more than any other food group, beef output will drop 3.2 percent in 2015, USDA data show.

While it can take as long as three years to expand cattle production, higher prices are creating an incentive to boost global supply. Calves born on ranches graze on pastures until they are about a year old. The animals weigh 500 pounds to 800 pounds and are fattened on corn until they reach 1,300 pounds, when they are sold to meatpackers.

Canada’s herd may increase as much as 4 percent in 2016, Canfax’s Perillat said. In the U.S., drought is receding in Texas, and the feedlot herd in October was 0.5 percent larger than a year earlier at 10.633 million head, government data showed Nov. 21.

For now, flooded pastures in parts of the prairies is compounding the stress on ranchers. Portions of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the largest beef producers after Alberta, had a record wet growing season in 2014, according to Gail Martell, the president of Martell Crop Projections.

The rains fell on parts of Manitoba where the soil remained saturated from flooding in 2011, with excess moisture reported on 80 percent of the province’s cattle-ranching areas, said Melinda German, general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers.

Neil Olafson, who has 200 head on 2,300 acres near Lake Manitoba Narrows, said he may have to sell half his herd next year to generate the cash needed to feed the rest because the pastures are so water-logged. Most of his hay fields are too wet to plant, and calves are about 100 pounds below their normal weight, he said.

“The stress is unbelievable,” said Olafson, 57. “That’s why so many of our neighbors are throwing up their hands and saying we just can’t deal with this anymore.”

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