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Alberta cattle ranchers expect strong year despite volatile conditions

Wayne Skelton bundles up his calves to help them through extreme cold. He said all his young cattle are healthy after Alberta's cold snap this month and he's expecting a good year for revenue.  (Submitted by Wayne Skelton - image credit)
Wayne Skelton bundles up his calves to help them through extreme cold. He said all his young cattle are healthy after Alberta's cold snap this month and he's expecting a good year for revenue. (Submitted by Wayne Skelton - image credit)

Wayne Skelton, who ranches purebred Hereford cattle near Winfield in central Alberta, is predicting a strong year for his business in 2024.

In spite of high input costs and volatile conditions, Skelton said strong demand for beef is encouraging.

"That's just what us cowboys do, just keep, you know, going into the next year with all kinds of optimism," he said.

"It just feels like we're on the cusp of some really good times to come.… We have to make right decisions, but I think the stage is set."

From January to November 2023, ground beef prices in Alberta rose by more than 10 per cent, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada.

Brenna Grant, executive director of Canfax, a Canadian beef statistics firm based in Calgary, said demand for beef has continued to be robust despite the high cost.

"In the last 12 months, we've seen record high prices," she said. "We are looking at prices stabilizing at these high levels."

Grant said beef production declined in 2023, and further decline is expected in 2024.

StatsCan data shows the number of cattle on Canadian beef operations dropped from 10,470,400 in 2022 to 10,301,700 last year.

But tight supply means strong prices on the market for ranchers like Skelton.

"For producers that are selling … they're expecting strong prices, particularly in the second half of the year," said Grant.

Shawn Wilson is one of the owners of SW Cattle. He said the cold snap this month in the Prairies was inconvenient, but his cows are 'no worse off than we thought we were going to be before the winter started.'
Shawn Wilson is one of the owners of SW Cattle. He said the cold snap this month in the Prairies was inconvenient, but his cows are 'no worse off than we thought we were going to be before the winter started.'

Shawn Wilson is one of the owners of SW Cattle Company. He says the cold snap this month across the Prairies was inconvenient, but his cows are 'no worse off than we thought we were going to be before the winter started.' (Submitted by Shawn Wilson )

Recent cold a challenge, but no long-term impacts

Shawn Wilson, who ranches cattle near Strathmore, Atla., and in Saskatchewan, said this month's extreme cold stretch was inconvenient but won't have a lasting impact on his operation.

"You have to feed them a little bit more for a few days," he said. "But obviously the weather in November into December and early January was a lot more mild. So that saved us a lot of feed.

"We're probably no worse off than we thought we were going to be before the winter started."

Wilson also expects business will be good this year but said increased transportation and feed costs are digging into his margins.

"Whether you're the consumer buying something or you're the producer raising something … it costs more money."

Owner of SW Cattle Company Shawn Wilson expects business will 'stay good' in 2024 but said higher input costs are squeezing his profit margin.
Owner of SW Cattle Company Shawn Wilson expects business will 'stay good' in 2024 but said higher input costs are squeezing his profit margin.

Cattle rancher Shawn Wilson expects business will 'stay good' in 2024 but says higher input costs are squeezing his profit margin. (Submitted by Shawn Wilson)

Skelton said he calves during the winter months, which made the cold snap stressful.

"Probably the biggest [impact] for me personally and my wife is lack of sleep," he said, adding he could only get an hour or two of shut-eye while monitoring his expecting cows.

"As good as I think I am, most cows will still fool me in terms of when they decide to deliver their baby."

Skelton said he puts hoodies and coats on his young calves to protect their ears and keep them comfortable in low temperatures.

"We made it through. The little babies there are alive and well and thriving," he said.

Short-term weather changes, like this month's cold snap, don't have a significant impact on the beef market, according to the Canadian Cattle Association.

But the drought conditions affecting much of Alberta and forcing some farmers to downsize their herds are driving a favourable outlook for the producers still in the market, said association vice-president Tyler Fulton.

"It's about as good as it's been in the last, well, ever," he said.

"What we need is Mother Nature to, you know, co-operate a little bit and give us some moisture … so that we can actually maximize our production and really take advantage."