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·         ‘A crisis of capacity’: Ontario faces slaughterhouse scarcity during COVID-19

·         Processing capacity continues to weigh on Ontario beef industry



‘A crisis of capacity’: Ontario faces slaughterhouse scarcity during COVID-19

Abattoirs have been shutting down across the province — now the pandemic is putting pressure on an already strained system


By Marsha McLeod, (Canada)

Jan 06, 2021


Last fall, Tim Dowling booked enough slots at an abattoir for about two of his cattle to be slaughtered and processed each month until December 2021. If he were to book this week, however, the earliest slot he could get from that facility ­would be about a year away.


The grass-fed-beef farmer on Howe Island, east of Kingston on the St. Lawrence River, isn’t a stranger to such waits. It took about seven months before he recently learned that he was at the front of a wait-list at one of those two small-scale slaughterhouses — ahead of about 150 others. “We're direct-selling meat to folks in our community,” he says. “And if we don’t have bookings, we’re in big trouble.”


Doublejay, the farm Dowling runs with his mom, Dianne, could theoretically send its animals to a large abattoir, such as the Cargill meat-processing plant in Guelph, he says, but that’s the last the farm would see of the animal, as the meat goes into that company’s distribution system — and, besides, a COVID-19 outbreak at that plant led to a nearly two-week shutdown last month. Custom slaughter allows farms to send their beef to an abattoir and have it cut to their specifications; they can then sell the meat through their own websites or at farmers’ markets.


The number of provincially licensed abattoirs in Ontario has dwindled from 229 in 1999 to 115 as of October 2020, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. COVID-19 is accelerating consumers’ interest in locally produced food, but limited abattoir capacity means that family farms can’t respond to demand, Dowling says: “As smaller farms that sell our own meat, the abattoir streams determine our capacity as a whole.”


The National Farmers Union-Ontario, which advocates for small and family farmers, has heard a lot from its members about booking issues at abattoirs, says Dowling, the union’s national livestock committee chair. “It's basically a crisis of capacity,” he says. In August, the union sent a survey to all abattoirs in the province about the major issues for their businesses. They heard back from about a third. 


More than half of respondents said that they’d like to expand their capacity but that the cost was too high. The remainder were older owners more interested in retirement, Dowling told Farmers Forum. The majority also said that they have difficulty finding qualified staff. About three-quarters reported having to book at least six months ahead. (Dowling says it used to be around three months in his area.) He also anticipates that booking times will have increased since the survey was taken.


Tom Henderson, a longtime abattoir owner, has himself faced difficulties finding staff. He’s owned Tom Henderson's Meats and Abattoir Inc., in Chesterville, about 50 kilometres west of Cornwall, for just shy of 40 years. “I spent quite a bit of money looking for people in papers and on my phone, through Facebook, through Kijiji, and I never got a call — never got one call,” Henderson says, referring to his recruiting efforts during the pandemic. He believes the availability of emergency government funds has made it harder to attract applicants.


Only four abattoirs remain in the region, he says: “They're getting slim to none, now.” In the last two or three years, he’s seen a boom in business; he’s now booking well into spring and fall 2021. “For us, there's days that we could use extra help — probably every day — but we work at it as best we can, and we get the job done,” he adds.


In Yarker, a small town north of Kingston, Brian Quinn is looking for a buyer for his abattoir, Quinn’s Meats Ltd., which he’s run for 46 years. As he told the Kingstonist, he’s looking to retire. “The trade hasn’t passed down from generation to generation,” Quinn said. “Pretty much everybody here is in their 50s. There are no young kids stepping up.”


In November 2020, the Ontario government announced...


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Processing capacity continues to weigh on Ontario beef industry


Rob Gowan, The Stratford Beacon Herald (Canada)

Jan 06, 2021


While the beef industry in Grey-Bruce weathered 2020 and the challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, work continues to address concerns around packing capacity in the province.


Rob Lipsett, president of Beef Farmers of Ontario, participated in Beef Day at Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week on Wednesday, where he said finding solutions to address the lack of processing capacity continues to be top priority for the industry in the province.


“We are working on short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions to the processing capacity,” said Lipsett, who runs cow-calf and backgrounder operations near Annan. “Most of them are involving both the federal and provincial government and some kind of funding to spearhead expansion.”


In the spring, processing plant closures and slowdowns due to COVID-19 outbreaks, delays in getting cattle to market in the U.S. due to a tightening border, and lower restaurant demand because of shutdowns, resulted in a backlog of cattle ready for market and depressed prices for producers. But those were short-lived, Lipsett explained.


“I would suggest that early in the pandemic we fared really well,” Lipsett said. “The processors that continued to operate were working through at about 122 per cent of capacity.”


But Ontario producers are again seeing lower prices for their cattle with the shutdown of a Guelph processing plant because of a COVID-19 outbreak last month.


“We didn’t suffer too much until December when Cargill (in Guelph) had to close and Norwich Packers also had to close for a little while due to COVID,” he said.


But that lack of processing capacity was impacting beef farmers even before the pandemic hit, after a major Ontario plant closed in the fall of 2019, Lipsett explained. Other factors that have weighed heavily on the industry include U.S. plants taking fewer Canadian cattle, an overabundance of cow culls in the Ontario market, and plant closings in Quebec in recent years.


Lipsett said BFO continues to lobby governments, and both the federal and provincial governments have been open to talks about more programming and ways to increase processing capacity as well as supports for the sector.


He said the beef industry had an obvious win last year with an additional $50-million invested into a risk management program for farmers as well as changes to the fund that manages allocations on a sector-specific basis.


The Canadian and Ontario governments have also invested funds into a set-aside program, allowing beef farmers to apply for funding to cover the increased costs with setting aside and feeding market-ready cattle during process delays brought on by the pandemic...