By Henry Vissers
Cattle and beef production has been a mainstay of the Nova Scotia economy for many years. All of us can remember pastoral scenes of cattle in the field, especially cows with their calves.
Not all is rosy in the Nova Scotia cattle business, however. Recent agricultural census data show that beef cattle numbers have dropped significantly since the 2006 census. The report says that beef cattle reported for breeding purposes (beef cows and beef heifers) dropped by 28.8 per cent to a total of 20,986 head in the 2011 census.
Why have we seen such a dramatic fall off of cattle numbers? The reasons are numerous. The main one that comes to mind for anyone close to the sector is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or what is commonly known as mad cow disease. In 2003, a cow in Alberta was tested and found to have the prions associated with this disease and countries across the world would no longer accept Canadian beef.
You wouldn't think that would affect Nova Scotia beef farmers since we only produce a small portion of our consumption. We are a trading nation, however, and 50 per cent of Canada's beef production is exported so when the borders closed the price tanked for everyone.
Add to that the appreciation of the Canadian dollar from a value of 65 cents to par and above and you have a recipe for price disaster.
Federal and provincial governments rolled out support programs but they were stop-gap, keeping the farm alive until things turned around. Not everyone made it, difficult decisions were made and finally, in the last while, prices are beginning to revive.
While the crisis was in play, farmers and farm organizations looked at different ways of insulating themselves from the swings in market prices and to get closer to the consumer. This was supported by the consumers' recognition of the value of local agriculture products and farms.
Local product also gets a boost from news story such as product recalls and problems in the larger plants, for example the United States debate on what is called ‘Pink Slime' or lean fine textured beef, which is beef trimmings injected with ammonia hydroxide. Health Canada won't let it be made here or imported but it's caused quite a stir in the U.S. and has caused some U.S. beef plants to be closed.
Industry and government have been focusing on our grass advantage. Nova Scotia has an ideal climate for growing good forages, lots of moisture and excellent grass growing temperatures. Focusing on growing good quality forage and working with good breeding stock will help beef production to turn the corner.
Turning to the 2011, agriculture census data also shows that farmers are getting older, 55.4 years up from 53.2 in the 2006 census. It's not a big change but worrisome when thinking about farm succession.
The good news is the farm gate value of outputs for Nova Scotia has increased from $509 million in 2006 to $595 million in 2011 and farmers spend 84 cents of every dollar earned buying goods and services in rural Nova Scotia communities.
Another number that jumps out is the increase in the number of farms, a 2.9 per cent increase to 3,905 farms.
Keep in mind that a census farm is ‘an agricultural operation that produces agriculture products intended for sale.' There is no stipulation of an amount of income that is being generated in order to qualify as a farm. A more in-depth look at the numbers shows that there are 1,643 census farms producing less than $10,000 in gross farm income, an increase of 286 census farms.
For census farms with less than $10,000 in gross farm income, off-farm income is necessary and generally supports these ‘lifestyle' farms. These farms do make a contribution to the rural economy and are important to the agriculture framework. Some may eventually become larger farms.
The ag census data is a snapshot of trends and changes in farming. Have a look for yourself at: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/95-640-x/2012002-eng.htm.
Henry Vissers is the executive director of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, which is based in Truro. He lives in Valley.