This article written by Andrea Brocklebank, BCRC Executive Director, originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Connection magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.
“Telling the future by looking at the past….is like driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror” – Herb Bordy…but history helps illuminate the present. Shortly after Confederation, agriculture became a nation-building tool to settle the West and prevent U.S. expansion. Agriculture provided freight for Canada’s railroads, fed the urban population, and supplied millers, processors and exporters. Canada’s Experimental Farms Stations Act of 1886 supported productivity-boosting research and provided even more freight, food, and economic spin-offs.
Canada’s farm population declined as technology and mechanization reduced the need for farm labour, and more people moved into other jobs in Canada’s expanding economy. When Canada’s first agricultural census was completed in 1931, 31.7% of Canada’s population lived on farms. By 2005, 2.2% of Canada’s population lived on farms.
What does this mean for applied cattle, forage and beef research? As Canada’s population grows, governments are challenged to support healthcare, education and other programs demanded by Canadians while reducing deficits. Very few Canadian voters are beef producers, and the beef sector is a relatively small part of the Canadian economy (less than 2% of the GDP). Consequently, public funding for applied agricultural research has declined over the last several decades.
In a competitive global beef industry, standing still is falling behind. If beef cannot compete for limited land, labour and water resources with other agricultural commodities, production will decline. As an export dependent industry, Canada’s beef industry must also be able to produce a high quality product that is competitively priced with other major beef producing countries.
Putting your money where your mouth is. Although both federal and provincial governments continue to be important and significant contributors to Canadian beef and forage research, lack of industry support has been used to justify cutting or redirecting public research and extension programs. This is especially apparent as researchers retire. A lack of industry support means that retired researchers have not been replaced and research programs have been cut in an effort to reduce budgets. “Industry support” means “industry investment”. Government research funding is increasingly being triggered and guided by industry investments. The ratio varies, but often government contributes $3 for every $1 industry invests.
What does this mean to Saskatchewan beef producers? Many Canadian universities have a narrow focus on animal welfare, genomics, or environmental research programs. This attracts public funding for today’s hot topics, and may be less costly than production research, but a broad farm-to-fork approach is needed to train new expertise that can conduct applied research of direct benefit to beef producers. The University of Saskatchewan currently has Canada’s strongest and most comprehensive forage, cattle and beef research program. The expertise, infrastructure, research and education within and between the Departments of Soil, Crop, Plant Sciences, and Animal Sciences, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization (VIDO), , the Crop Development Centre, the Western Beef Development Centre (WBDC), and others allow for research that provides meaningful outcomes that directly benefit Saskatchewan’s and Canada’s beef industry.
Industry investment and leadership are critical to the success of the research produced by these programs. For example, the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Chair position currently held by Dr. John McKinnon was funded by industry. Dr. McKinnon works closely with cow-calf producers, feedlot operators, veterinarians and the feed industry on numerous aspects of beef cattle management, including nutritional and environmental factors influencing the growth and carcass quality of feeder cattle and the nutrition of wintering beef cows. The relevance of Dr. McKinnon’s research and technology transfer program to Canada’s beef industry can be directly attributed to his keen interest in working closely with Canada’s cow-calf and feedlot sectors. Without industry funding this position may not have existed.
Dr. McKinnon has played a key role in developing the proposed new Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Unit (BCRTU). The half-century old University feedlot facility is in dire need of replacement. Its location in the center of Saskatoon is unsuitable, its small pens and facility design no longer reflect industry standards, and it no longer meets Canadian Council for Animal Care standards. The Livestock Research Building on campus can’t support the caliber of the nutritional and physiological research that the university’s research team is capable of conducting. The proposed BCRTU will overcome these challenges and allow the University to conduct meaningful research into the future. The Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association’s commitment of one million producer check-off dollars to the BCRTU initiative clearly tells government that this initiative is an industry priority. Meaningful progress is being made with government to ensure the construction of this important facility proceeds.
The Termuende family ranch bequeathed to the University of Saskatchewan is another significant private investment. This initial partnership evolved into the applied beef cattle research program at the Western Beef Development Centre (WBDC), emphasizing technology transfer that brings research results to cattle operations. The partnership between industry and the University at the WBDC led to significant investments in infrastructure and ongoing support of research expertise and programs by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, and other funding agencies.
The WBDC is evolving to strengthen its ties with the industry-oriented beef and forage research and technology transfer programming at the University of Saskatchewan. This initiative has been spearheaded by a Livestock and Forage Steering Committee convened by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. The intent is to relocate the WBDC researchers, program and herd to the Goodale research farm managed by the WCVM. Locating the WBDC and near the BCRTU and closer to the Saskatoon campus will provide greater access and opportunities for researchers and students. This integration will come at a cost, and industry will need to consider what role it needs to play as this integration proceeds.
Research expertise is another significant concern. A number of critical beef and forage researchers are set to retire in the next five to ten years. The BCRC and other industry groups have invested check-off dollars to train new researchers in these areas. Ensuring that new researchers are available to replace anticipated retirees will help ensure that research positions are not lost through attrition, that research programs are transitioned, and that research momentum is not lost. Like the Beef Chair positions in the Department of Animal Science and in the WCVM, industry may need to provide seed funding that can leverage government funds to get these new researchers hired into permanent positions. Check-off funds can only be spread so far, so this is also an opportunity for private donors from the beef and forage industry to make a very meaningful investment with a lasting impact.
What is the beef industry’s role in funding research? There are two main ways that individuals and industry organizations can support research. Producer organizations support research through provincial and national check-off investments. Each provincial cattle organization decides how to divide their national check-off dollar between research and marketing initiatives, so check-off investments in research vary among provinces. Saskatchewan producers allocate $0.30 of the national check-off to research programming, with the remainder being allocated to marketing of beef ($0.68) and administration ($0.02).
Producer check-offs help provide consistent levels of funding to support research projects and programs that maintain or improve beef quality, food safety, feed and forage productivity, environmental sustainability and animal health and welfare. Check-off revenues to support research and marketing initiatives are under significant pressure. When annual inflation is considered, the purchasing power of the national check-off has fallen from $1.00 in 1999 to $0.80 in 2013. Cattle inventories and sales have declined to levels last seen in the early 1990s, leading to still fewer national check-off funds available for research. This will greatly limit industry’s ability to fund high priority research and support badly-needed initiatives like new Beef Industry Chairs.
The new National Beef Strategy (http://beefstrategy.com/) clearly explains what industry could achieve if the national check-off was increased from $1.00 to $2.50/head. If the proposed national check-off increase is implemented, Saskatchewan will have a $3.00 provincial check-off and a $2.50 national check-off. To put this into perspective relative to current prices, with the proposed increase, Saskatchewan producers would be investing a total of 0.43% of a weaned calf’s value, or 0.27% of a fed animal’s value into provincial and national policy, research, and marketing initiatives. This is less than a half of what other agricultural commodities invest in their industries.
Producer check-off funds help support ongoing research projects, while private contributions (e.g. Termuende Research Ranch) and endowments (e.g. Beef Industry Chairs and the Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Unit) allow larger investments in research facilities and expertise. This provides an opportunity for Saskatchewan producers who value the contributions that Saskatchewan’s applied cattle, forage and beef research and technology transfer have made to their industry in the province to help ensure it continues while leaving a lasting legacy.
Click here to subscribe to the BCRC Blog and receive email notifications when new content is posted.
The sharing or reprinting of BCRC Blog articles is typically welcome and encouraged, however this article requires permission of the original publisher.
We welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. Contact us directly or generate public discussion by posting your thoughts below.