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Beef's high cost: Butchers and buyers struggle with price of cattle cuts; ranchers struggle with ongoing drought conditions

Beef prices have risen to near-record highs, according to food security expert Dr. Sylvain Charlebois from Dalhousie University.

"Since the beginning of the year, beef prices have gone up anywhere between 10 to 15 per cent so far across the country, and we're probably expecting another 10 per cent by the end of this year, unfortunately, for many cuts other than ground beef," he said.

"That’s due to droughts in the U.S., droughts in the Prairies as well, and inventories are extremely low or at least lower than usual, which is pushing prices higher, generally speaking."

The rising price of beef is impacting local butchers and small businesses in Alberta.

Shane Eustace, store manager of Urban Butcher in southwest Calgary's Mission neighbourhood, says his team has noticed a pretty significant spike in the price of beef since the beginning of spring.

"Our biggest issue, especially from drought, was a supply problem," he said.

"Not so much that people were buying less of any particular cut but a lot of the premium cuts were harder to get and so there were times that people were finding alternative cuts simply because the more premium cuts they wanted weren't really available."

Eustace says the demand for beef is still there but some customers like Ryan Martin are adjusting their purchasing habits.

"The price has gone up quite a bit, so we try to be more conscious of deals out there. I can't remember it being this high. It's gotten pretty expensive," he said.

"So we've changed our diet a little bit as well, maybe having more turkey or chicken."

Daniel Doerksen, owner of Gemstone Cattle Company in southwest Alberta, says he believes the rising beef prices will unfortunately continue.

"These are probably the best prices I've seen for cattle in my time in ranching, so it’s exciting for that but those increased profits are going to be eaten up by the record-high meat prices that we've seen," he said.


Along with shops and shoppers, Alberta ranchers are facing a harsh reality as drought conditions continue across the province.

A total of 15 communities in Alberta have now declared an agricultural emergency.

Rachel Herbert, owner of Trail’s End Beef in Nanton, Alta., says her community has received a third of its usual rainfall this spring and summer.

"Our water sources and wells are struggling to keep up, there's some springs that are dry, the seasonal streams and anything that typically runs through the hills that are spring-fed is dry or low," Herbert said.

"Watering cattle is one of the biggest issues, so there's lots of juggling and moving cattle around to different pastures and hauling water. That's been a huge concern."

A total of 15 communities in Alberta have now declared an agricultural emergency due to drought conditions.

Herbert says the lack of rainfall has also made it impossible for her to grow enough hay to feed her animals.

She has to buy some from elsewhere at a premium instead.

It's gotten so expensive that her ranch is even asking customers and supporters if they can help out by covering the cost of a hay bale, which ranges from $225 to $250.


Cattle herd numbers across Canada are at their lowest in more than 30 years, according to the Canadian Cattle Association.

Last year, the size of the Canadian cattle herd fell to 12.3 million animals – the lowest level recorded since July 1, 1988.

Now, the number of cattle in Canada is at 11.27 million.

"Currently, a lot of the pastures are out of grass, a lot of them are now running out of water and the ability to start feeding from now until next May or June, if we're lucky, is going to be extremely challenging," said Sheila Hillmer, vice-chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

"To the consumer, it looks like we're charging a ridiculous amount of money but we're at an all-time high cost of inputs with the feed, the grains, all of that, and the high cost of cattle."

Stuart Smyth, University of Saskatchewan professor and research chair in Agri-Food Innovation, says the extended pattern of below-average moisture will also result in reduced pasture availability.

"With reduced forage production capacities, we are having to declare some significant drought challenges," he said.

"This is resulting in farmers selling more livestock but the challenge is that because we have so few meat processing companies in Canada, that even though the price of beef in the auction market may be going down, the price of meat in the grocery stores is staying where it is or it's going up."

Rachel Herbert, owner of Trail’s End Beef in Nanton, Alta., says her community has received a third of its usual rainfall this spring and summer.


Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation RJ Sigurdson says his office is continuing to monitor crop and water supply across the province.

He says Alberta's water pumping program is available to help producers secure adequate water supply for domestic, livestock or agricultural uses.

"In early July, we asked the federal government to work with us on an AgriRecovery assessment to address the impacts of the hot, dry weather on livestock producers in Alberta," a letter to stakeholders, released publicly by the Alberta government, reads.

"We are working closely with the federal government to expedite next steps and maximize on cost-shared federal funding, which is critical to ensuring the program provides the maximum benefit to producers.

"I will continue to emphasize the urgent need here in our province for a Canada-Alberta joint response. In the meantime, the province is moving ahead with drafting program eligibility to help offset extraordinary costs of feeding livestock to maintain the breeding herd."

Sigurdson says more updates on livestock feed assistance programs will come in mid-September, but ranchers like Herbert say drought relief measures are a literal "drop in the bucket."

"The money kind of to subsidize the hay barely even covers the cost of the trucking for one load because right now, we're seeing that there's not a lot of hay being produced in southern Alberta," she said.

"It's really having to come from elsewhere and it's really the trucking expenses that have pushed everything, you know, over the top with producers needing to raise their prices in these demand cycles." Top Stories

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