So, you wake up one morning as usual. Stumble out of bed. Slide into your pants. Throw a shirt on and head for the coffee pot. You pour yourself a cup and sit down at the kitchen table to plot your day.
Starts pretty normal and you’re looking forward to the work that lies ahead. You have heads to count, feed rations to calculate and 22 trucks coming into load. You’re just about out the door and the phone rings…
Or maybe you’re waking up at a roadside rest area. You climb out of your truck and start walking back towards the set of grain hoppers you’re pulling. Kicking tires, checking lights and getting set up to go load a load of barley.
Out of the corner of your ear you hear your cell phone ringing….
Maybe you just got out of the elevator and are heading through the lobby doors and into the small offices that houses the broadcasting equipment and studio where you prepare and pre-record the morning’s agriculture reports…. then you hear the phone ring…!
No one saw it coming. It came out of nowhere. Much like the attacks on 9/11. It was one of those surreal moments in your life. Everyone knows where they were on 9/11. But for the beef industry a more memorable day was May 20, 2003. That was the day the Canada/US border slammed shut with a shockwave that hit not only the aforementioned trading partners but 40 additional countries that trades with Canada.
A bovine illness known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was found in a cow that came from Canada, and that set off a 26-month shockwave that sent the price and demand for Canadian cattle through the floor.
Imagine being the cattle producer. The value of your $1400 ready-for-market cow has just dropped to $235. Sadly, you have anywhere from 200- 2000 head.
The guy out walking around his truck checking out the $100,000 set of grain trailers that he’s making payments on just realized the monthly payment he’s making far outweighs the value of his trailers, simply because he along with many others who up until this morning hauled barley to the feedlots are now out of work.
As for the guy at the radio station. Well, he has got one long day ahead of him trying to figure out the “Who, what, when, where and whys” of this whole BSE mess.
But it happened. Twenty years ago. No one knew what to do. No one knew when and ‘if’ the border would reopen to the exporting of Canadian beef products to the US. Or anywhere else for that matter.
I lost count of how many times I was asked by US Customs officers if I had any beef products of any kind or form. This went on for months that stretched into years.
By August of 2003, the writing was on the wall that this BSE crisis wasn’t going away anytime soon. Some speculated it was a retaliation on the part of the US government against Canada for its lack of “gung-ho” approach to not jumping in with President George W Bush’s war on terrorism. His immortal words at the time were:
“You are either with us, or against us…”
The Prime Minister at the time Jean Chretien (the little guy from Shawinigan) wasn’t so gung-ho and he preferred the “’wait and see” approach. Thus, the rumours about the US planting a BSE-infected cow in the food chain. This was speculation at best.
From where I stood, cow haulers were sick to their stomachs. No work. Cattle producers at wits end unable to sell their cattle and feedlots trying to figure out what the hell to do with the cattle they had in inventory. They couldn’t keep feeding them.
As far as the packing plants were concerned, there developed a funneling effect. Too many cattle to process and only one place to send them: the Canadian domestic market.
So, the term “cull” reared its head. Kill the excess. Put ’em in a big pile with a front-end loader and burn ‘em.
And that’s what was done to remove the excess cattle to balance out the market.
Finally, 26 months later the US/ Canada border re-opened to allow Canada to export cattle and beef products back into the US.
It took 5 years for the industry to get back to where it was the day before that case of BSE was reported.
It was a rough time for the entire agriculture sector across the country. Many businesses went under, big and small. It changed the entire playing field. Some lost a great deal, some lost everything and sadly some took their own lives.
The then-Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein uttered the famous term when asked about any recurrence of another case of BSE being found. His words: “Shoot, shovel…and shut up.”
The Canadian beef industry today is no doubt wiser and stronger for having weaved its way through those very stormy and uncharted waters. The fact that a single cow with BSE was found in the food chain is a testament that the safeguards in place worked. They still work 20 years later. The food chain safeguards in place today are exemplary throughout the world.
I haul cattle. I work in the Ag sector. Folks don’t like to talk about that day 20 years ago. If it’s brought up, I’m sure those who lived through still get that sick feeling in the pit off their stomach.
So, here’s to the calloused hands, the sweat on the brow, the long hours in the cold and heat they endure to put something good on your BBQ….