A return to the past — border closure incentive for meat-packing expansion

by Bruce Cherney

“The trend is worrisome news for the U.S. packing industry,” writes Omaha World-Herald writer Mark Kawar, “which has seen financial losses, production slowdowns, layoffs and even a packing plant physically moving to Canada.”

The plant mentioned by Kawar has been moved from Ferndale, Washington state to Dauphin, Manitoba where it will open under the name Ranchers Choice. The plant from the United States will become a $14-million slaughter facility for local cattle.

“It’s not hard to imagine a future where we’re sending our cattle to Canada for slaughter,” said Ted Schroeder, a professor of livestock marketing at Kansas State University.

The pain experienced by meat packers south of the border is the aftermath of closing the American border to Canadian cattle, following the May 2003 discovery of one Alberta cow infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad-cow disease). There are now four confirmed  cases — three in Alberta and one in the U.S. — but testing has intensified and scientists assure us that Canadian beef is completely safe to consume. 

American meat packers say the border closure has cost their industry US $1.7 billion. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a report that outlines the building, expansion or targeting for expansion of two dozen Canadian packing plants. A new $100-million Lethbridge plant will be able to slaughter 1,500 cattle per day. Ironically, many of the plants being built or expanded are in areas that traditionally had sent their live cattle for slaughter to the U.S.

“We’re exporting jobs to Canada,” said  Darrel Sweet, the president of the California Cattlemen’s Association in an Associated Press report. “If there’s not a healthy meat-packing industry, then our live animals don’t get converted into beef. There isn’t much economic value if we can’t convert it into beef.”

Agriculture Canada said Canadian slaughter capacity has gone up from 77,000 head per week in 2003 to 86,000 in 2004.

If R-CALF USA, a lobby group promoting American-only beef in the U.S., hadn’t convinced a Montana U.S. District Court judge to issue an injunction, Canadian cattle (under 30-months of age) would have once again been crossing the border and the American meat-packing industry would have been given some breathing space. Until the ruling by Judge Richard Cebull,  the plan had been to re-open the border on March 7 to Canadian cattle.

“Thanks to R-CALF,” said Steve Dittmer of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation in the U.S., “Canada’s biggest nightmare has been prolonged far beyond what was necessary. But in the long-term, R-CALF could have helped propel Canada’s beef chain development efforts farther and faster than would have happened in decades without their interference.”

Cebull has set July 27 as the date he will hear arguments on whether or not his ruling should be made permanent. 

“The (U.S.) Agriculture Department fully investigated all aspects of Canada’s science-based system to control and prevent ... BSE ... before it issued a rule that would have re-opened the U.S. border to Canadian cattle, and a District Court judge from Montana erred when he blocked the USDA from implementing the rule ...,” said the American Farmer Bureau, a strong voice in American agriculture, in a press release.

“We have a cattlemen’s activist group (R-CALF) within our industry which is risking consumer demand by litigating science to protect their short-term interest (high beef prices to American consumers),” said Terry Stokes, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

With the continuation of the closure and the possibility the judge will make his ruling permanent, the only option available to Canadian cattle producers was to increase local slaughter capacity and salvage an industry that has suffered losses totalling some $7 billion since May 2003. 

What is happening now in Canada is a reversal of what had been approaching prevailing practice — raising cattle for shipment to the U.S. for slaughter. According to Manitoba Agriculture, in 2001, about 202,200 slaughter cattle and 12,800 feeder cattle, valued at $255.6 million, were exported from Manitoba to the U.S. Another 13,900 slaughter cattle and an estimated 321,000 feeder cattle and calves were sold mainly to Alberta and Ontario. Less than one-third of locally-produced cattle were fed to slaughter weight. 

Manitoba’s cattle slaughter capacity reached a peak of 581,000 head in 1976 and declined to 15,900 in 2001. Two small federally-inspected plants slaughtered about 6,525 cattle in 2001, according to Manitoba Agriculture, while 9,425 head were killed in 25 provincially-inspected plants.

At one time, there were massive stockyards in St. Boniface. This ended when the existing plants were in need of significant infusions of money for upgrades and meat-packing companies got better deals from the government in Alberta to relocate.

It was an end of the momentum in the cattle industry which had been building since the days of the first Selkirk Settlers.

The story of the first cattle to reach the Red River began in 1812 when Miles Macdonnell, the leader of the 23-member party which was to prepare the settlement for the first group of Selkirk Settlers, discovered two members of the bovine breed at Oxford House. Macdonnell couldn’t believe his luck in finding a half-grown heifer and a bull, which he named Adam and Eve, thinking they were the only examples of their species in the North-West. 

He enthused that, like their Biblical counterparts, the two would “go forth and multiply,” and a herd would arise to provide a source of milk for the children and beef on the hoof for all the settlers.

The cattle were transported by canoe to Red River. How they managed to calm the cattle while aboard and keep them from “rocking the boat,” is a matter of speculation. 

The cattle had to be loaded and unloaded every time the crews stopped during the multiple-day journey to the settlement. But, they arrived safe and sound at Red River, though unforeseen circumstances dictated that they would not multiply.

In 1813, a bull, cow and calf bought by Peter Fidler for £100 from the North-West Company were taken to the new settlement. The colonists now had a herd of five which they hoped to nurture into many. Unfortunately, the North-West bull turned mean and had to be slaughtered for its meat. 

The bull could be forgiven his poor temperament since he was only duplicating the attitude of his original masters from the North-West Company, or Nor’Westers, who firmly believed that trying to create an agriculture-based settlement was the height of folly and bad for the fur trade.

Meanwhile, Adam had wandered off  during the winter. The settlers searched high and low for Adam, but he wasn’t seen again until the next spring when his body was observed floating down the Red River on a slab of ice. The settlement had three cows but no bull for procreation.

For three more years this was the sad state of affairs in the settlement. But in 1817, soldiers, sent by Lord Selkirk to aid the colonists in their ongoing battles with the Nor’Westers, secured five head of cattle, including a bull and an ox, all of which were seized from the Nor’Westers at Lac la Pluie. The next year, the Nor’Westers retook their cattle and promptly killed them for their beef.

Lord Selkirk ordered that four heifers were to be sent from the Orkney Islands to York Factory and then to the Red River. Two of the cattle died during the winter and two were delivered in 1820.

In their native Scotland, the Selkirk Settlers had been farmers and herdsmen. Under the right conditions, they had the wherewithal to develop a significant herd of cattle, and Lord Selkirk set out to accomplish the right conditions. He first tried to enlist anyone from along the Mississippi region who would travel into former Spanish territory to acquire a herd of from 50 to 100 cattle and drive them to the Red River.

Michael Dousman of Michilimackinac, Michigan, near present-day Mackinaw City, was willing to sign a contract to deliver 76 good milk cows, 20 oxen and four bulls to Big Stone Lake, South Dakota, located along its border with Minnesota. From there, it was agreed the settlers would drive the cattle to Red River.

Before even one head of cattle began the journey north, Dousman sold his contract to fellow townsman Adam Stewart, who then travelled to St. Louis to secure a herd.

Stewart obtained the cattle and plotted out a route from St. Louis, Missouri to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where the cattle would be wintered before recommencing their northward journey. It was a good plan, but for one fault — there wasn’t enough hay in Prairie du Chien and all the cattle starved to death.

Stewart wasn’t one to give up. In the spring of 1821, he returned to St. Louis to gather another herd. En route, he encountered Sioux with a hankering for beef on the hoof and he was cleaned out yet again.

Undeterred, Stewart went south for another herd in the spring of 1822. This time he was successful and the herd did complete the 1,600-kilometre journey to Point Douglas in the Red River settlement on August 28. Stewart actually arrived with 170 head of cattle, enough to fulfill his contract with 70 others for private sale.

According to tradition, the settlers were so happy that they sang and danced into the wee hours of the morning. They had reason to celebrate, since from this point on they were never again without cattle to provide milk, beef, hides, butter, milk or cheese, and a means of transportation.

The type of cattle they imported were presumably Texas longhorns, an extremely hardy breed of cattle, though possessing less meat on the bone than other varieties. According to the 1849 census of the Red River Settlement, the population was 5,391 and there were 6,014 “horned” cattle.

When the flood of 1826 killed a number of cattle, Joseph Rolette from Prairie du Chien, brought in another herd for private sale among the settlers.

Henry Youle Hind, who led an exploration party from Eastern Canada to Red River in 1857, gave an account of a farmer named Mr. Glower, who’s sales of crops caused Hind to remark that “an argument more strong and convincing than could be wrought out by any other process of reasoning, stands stubbornly forth in favour of the claims of the settlement as being one of best agricultural countries on the face of the globe.

“It should be  added that Mr. Glower’s profits have already enabled him to enlarge the bounds of his estate to 600 acres; to stock it with a noble herd of cattle and horses.”

But, not everyone was convinced. A writer to the London-based Spectator in reply to another letter by resident Captain Kennedy, containing glowing reports about the region’s fertility, is decidedly less optimistic. 

On July 22, 1857, he wrote that “a gentleman resident” of the Red River had written to him on “18th of May last,” saying that if the territory was ceded to Eastern Canada as was being discussed, “I think they would be something like the man who won the elephant at the raffle, and did not know what to do with it, when he got it.” 

According to the letter-writer, the settlement was akin to the proverbial White Elephant of East Asian lore which bankrupted any ruler who received it as a gift.

He then wrote: “Again this gentleman says, after describing the winter as severe and the spring backward, the farmers were not prepared for anything of the kind, they have expended everything in the shape of fodder long ago, and as the cattle could not procure a mouthful of food in the plains, between 400 and 500 have died from starvation, and the majority of those that escaped so far, are now dying off daily ...”

Farmers such as Almon James Cotton from Swan River, a prolific letter writer who gave free advice to potential Ontario settlers, provided an invaluable service in attracting people to the West. 

Government literature that found its way to the U.S. and Europe was full of the names of successful farmers who immigrants could contact. Some were paid and others such as Cotton were not. But, any disparaging word in a prestigious London publication could deal a severe blow to the immigration plans.

But, for every complaint there’s another side. The Hudson’s Bay Company also engaged in cattle-raising. Henry Martin Robinson wrote that the HBC ranches were 20 miles from Winnipeg, “at the foot of Lake Winnipeg, among the marshes and lowlands ... There the stock is herded during the summer and housed in the winter ... The generally high price of cattle makes stock-raising extremely profitable, and the wandering life attendant upon their care is particularly suited to the native herdsmen.

“The majority of the large forts in the Southern country have their stockyards  and farms, and the amount of wealth accumulated in this way is enormous.”

Kenneth McKenzie was the first rancher to bring purebred Shorthorns to improve cattle quality in Manitoba. He ranched 16 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie at Rat Creek. His son, Adam, was the first farmer in the Beautiful Plains (Neepawa) area and purchased Shorthorns from Minnesota. Another farmer, Walter Lynch of Westbourne, imported Shorthorns from Ontario.

John Barron, the son of a settler from Ontario, established the Fairview Stock Farm on the Carberry Plains and in 1882 bought and imported a registered Shorthorn heifer from Ontario. He would become one of Manitoba’s leading purebred breeders.

Robert Hall of Griswold was the first rancher in the West to breed Aberdeen Angus cattle. The first purebred Herefords were produced by the Sharmans of Souris.

Champion Aberdeen Angus livestock were produced by James Duncan McGregor of Rapid City, who became known far and wide simply by his initials — J.D. At the 1912 International Livestock Show in Chicago, he won ribbons for grand champion bull and reserve grand champion cow, first prize for a two-year-old and the grand championship for steers. The next year, McGregor again won the supreme championship.

The Klondike Gold Rush provides one of the more unusual stories. John Howey, a Bradwardine farmer, and his cousin William Burchell, a Brandon butcher, developed a scheme to strike it rich without having to grope about underground or pan in a stream for gold. 

The demand for beef in the Yukon was so high that it commanded $1 a pound, while in Manitoba, beef was going for a more miserly three cents a pound.

They resolved that they would make their fortune by bringing Manitoba cattle to Dawson City, the Yukon town serving as the commercial centre for the Klondike Gold Rush. They made two trips to Dawson City, leaving on both occasions in May from Brandon with nine herdsmen and many head of cattle. From Brandon they travelled by train to Vancouver, loaded the cattle on a ship and headed for Skagway. They then had to drive the cattle from Skagway through 800 kilometres of forest, bog and tundra.

The last 150 kilometres were negotiated by barges. The herdsmen built the barges themselves, allowing the cattle to fatten up from their arduous journey on the ample pasture of the mountain passes. Each trip took six months, but it was worth it — the two men made substantial profits.

The big boost to local cattle producers was the coming of the railway in 1881. In the first stage of the Trans-Canada railway’s development, producers would supply beef to work crews and in the second stage they would supply the beef to feed the immigrants riding the rails to a better life. 

The establishment of cities and towns along the route also provided a market for Manitoba meat, which is why St. Boniface became a major slaughterhouse and stockyard for Western Canada. Manitoba beef through the railway could be shipped to the four corners of the globe.

Pat Burns, a young Irish plowboy from Kirkfield, Ontario arrived in Brandon just as the railway reached the just-established community. The future meat-packing king of the West started off humbly, tilling the soil for John Wright Sifton, Brandon’s MP from 1881 to 1883. 

He got his start in the cattle industry in Manitoba, but his fortune was made in Calgary where he sold meat to Canadian Pacific Railway contractors. In Calgary, he formed P. Burns and Company Ltd., which became the largest meat-packing firm in the world. The Burns Company had a lengthy presence in Manitoba with the establishment of a meat-packing plant in St. Boniface, one of several companies to locate in that community.

Burns so monopolized the meat-packing business that the Manitoba and Alberta governments established a commission to look into accusations of price fixing. The governments saw the price of beef to consumers rising, but revenue for ranchers was falling.

“The prices which I give are open to the world and are higher than the prices that prevail in Winnipeg and in other places,” he testified.

With the CPR mainline running through Winnipeg and later the mainlines of other railways — three trans-continental rail lines converged in the city by the early 1900s — it became possible to send cattle all the way to Britain, a major market for Canadian beef after 1881 until the outbreak of the Second World War. 

During the heyday of Winnipeg, when it was being heralded as the “Chicago of the North,” flour milling and meat-packing were its major industries. Even during the Great Depression, Winnipeg’s slaughterhouses rivaled those of Toronto and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Cattle were shipped from across Western Canada to stockyards covering tens of acres in St. Boniface for shipment to ports such as Montreal and St. John, New Brunswick where specially designed freighters could accommodate up to 650 head of cattle each. It is estimated that the St. Boniface stockyards handled from 75,000 to 100,000 head of cattle for this trade. 

On arrival, the cattle were placed in pens and selected for suitability for the trip overseas. Local companies handled this trade, selecting the cattle and also the men who would accommodate the shipments to England.

During the Depression, this was one of the few opportunities for young men in their late-teens and early-20s to get a job and satisfy their wanderlust. Having connections was a good way to get a job, although some found that a bottle or two of whiskey in the right hands smoothed the way for a free passage. 

It was an extremely onerous job. The hands slept on straw-and-burlap mattresses while aboard ship and were roused at 5:30 a.m. to start their workday. They started feeding and watering the cattle immediately after being served cups of steaming tea that had been brewing overnight on the galley stove. Their breakfast break came at 8 a.m. and from 8:30 to noon they hauled up by pulley bales of hay and sacks of grain from the lower holds for the cattle. 

Part of the afternoon was spent mucking the stalls and feeding the cattle mixed grain. Supper at 6 p.m. was preceded by a couple of hours of free time. After supper, more watering and feeding continued until around 10 p.m.

The trip from Canada took about 10 or 11 days. The destinations could be any number of ports in Britain, but much of the stock was earmarked for Birkenhead located along the Mersey River across from Liverpool.

Despite its export success, Manitoba farmers were not faring all that well during the Depression. One McAuley-area farmer, who gave an account of these years to Don Bailey for Manitoba 125: A History: Gateway to the West (Great Plains), under the promise of anonymity, said that in 1934, his family’s beef cattle began to die in the fields because of drought. 

“There was no grass to speak of so they chewed into the earth and ate whatever roots they could find. But the dirt got into their lungs. They got the heaves and just choked to death. Nothing we could do.”

The more healthy cattle were hauled in two wagons to Brandon where they fetched a total of $11. 

“That was for about 20 cows. It was devastating to a proud man like my father. I don’t know how he kept his sanity.”

The remaining stock was kept “alive for the next couple of years by feeding them a tobacco can full of grain each that we managed to scrape from the ground.”

The family was on the verge of completely losing their land — they had already lost seven quarters to the banks and tax collectors and were only farming a half section. The father and cousin left to find work in Winkler, while his wife and child scythed “thistle and whatever little clumps of grain was growing ... It was barely enough to keep the livestock alive but they survived.”

The Winkler-area farm the father had been working on had a bumper crop. One of the ironies of the Depression was that some areas of Manitoba were not as severely affected by drought and crops could still be grown.

The father was able to return home with two box cars full of hay, straw, crab apples and four barrels of molasses. “The next few days were spent storing hay for the winter and mixing Russian thistle and straw in the cutting box where it was ground up and molasses was added. Both the beef and dairy cows devoured the stuff.”

The family survived and actually began to re-acquire land.

The other great economic downturn for Manitoba farmers occurred in the 1980s. Canada in 1981 began to slide into a recession almost as staggering as the Great Depression. By 1982, interest rates were over 20 per cent. 

In the 1970s, there had been an agricultural boom but the next decade only brought disaster. The good times gave banks the incentive to loan farmers plenty of cash, but when interest rates went through the roof, farmers did not have the means to repay these loans. 

What also didn’t help was that the 1980s also brought drought to the land. Farmers were crop-poor, cash-strapped and heavily in debt. Some simply walked away from their land. Others were forced to sell off land and machinery to meet their obligations.

“Bankruptcies and foreclosures were the all-too-common result,” wrote Minnedosa-born writer Fred McGuinness in Manitoba 125: A History. “This unfortunate turn of events gave a powerful impetus to the depopulation of rural Manitoba.”

The number of farms in Manitoba was in steady decline. In 1976, there were 32,104 farm operations and by 1986 this number had declined to  27,336. “Meanwhile, farm bankruptcies jumped from 14 in 1981 to 69 in 1985,” wrote McGuinness, “and totalled almost 400 over the course of the decade.”

Manitoba farmers have always been proud of their accomplishments and established a network of agricultural fairs to celebrate their success, the largest of which was held in Brandon, beginning in the summer of 1897. 

Besides the prizes for “the best of the best,” fairs gave livestock breeders a chance to compare and learn about new trends in the industry. In 1906, it was deemed essential to establish a separate fair to accommodate only livestock producers and the Brandon Winter Fair was born, which continues to this day. The Cattle Breeders’ Association scheduled their annual meetings to coincide with the winter fair in Brandon.

Cattle rustling was a bit of a problem, so the Western Stock Producers’ Association worked towards better branding regulations.

The Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, which was established by Manitoba government legislation in 1978, replaced the Manitoba Beef Growers Association, which had been in operation for seven years as the voice of Manitoba beef producers.

When the MCPA was formed, it represented 15,000 beef and dairy cattle producers marketing cattle. According to the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, “The association was formed to direct a new program of educational advertising and promotion, to conduct research into improvement of cattle production efficiency, and to provide market information to its members.”

The historical record shows that Manitoba beef producers have survived many hardships — violence, floods, drought and economic downturns. They have proved their resiliency year after year under the most trying of circumstances. The expansion and building of slaughter facilities is another example of their adaptation to counter a crisis.