Cattle check-off war may be over… history being made


At the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA) AGM in Red Deer a decision was made that long-time observers of the Alberta cattle industry thought they would never see in their lifetime, including your humble columnist. The ACFA membership voted to approve a proposed agreement with the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) for the return of the non-refundable provincial cattle check-off. The deal between the two main cattle producer groups is called the New Era Beef Industry Agreement. The revived non-refundable provincial levy would be $2, with $1.30 per head going to the ABP, $.25 going to the ACFA, $.40 going to a new industry development fund, and $.05 for collection fees. The national non-refundable levy of $2.50 would remain in place for a total check-off of $4.50 per head.
The check-off war between the ABP and ACFA goes back over 20 years and featured battles won and lost by both sides. The issue came to a head in 2009 when the Alberta government arbitrarily abolished non-refundable check-offs for all marketing commissions. That led to millions of cattle check-off dollars being refunded to a small group of feedlot operators and a drastic income decline for the ABP. That sowed the seeds of discontent amongst the majority of cow/calf producers who saw the big feedlot operators as industry development freeloaders. The ABP lobbied the provincial government for years in the hope of reinstating the non-refundable check-off. They found that hope with the present NDP government, who changed the regulations to allow plebiscites on check-off refundability. It was the opening the ABP needed, as they have strength in numbers of voters.

Perhaps the ACFA saw the writing on the wall being they are outnumbered 10 to 1 by primary producers who feel severely aggravated over the refunding of millions of check-off dollars to a few large operators. Perhaps there has been a generational change amongst cattle feeders who now see the check-off issue differently. Be that as it may, I suspect what helped this agreement along was the prospect of sharing check-off money and power between the ABP and the ACFA. Your ancient writer noted in long ago columns that money and power were always at the bottom of the check-off issue. Back then I boldly suggested that both the ACFA and the Western Stock Growers Association be given a share of the ABP check-off along with some power and some responsibilities to make them a formal part of the process rather than them endlessly sniping at the issue and wasting valuable time and resources. I see it took the industry about 15 years to take my advice. This proposed agreement allows producers to direct the ACFA $.25 per head share to go instead to the development fund. I suggest that is an unwise move, as the ACFA might find itself in the same position as the ABP was in with producers and feedlot operators redirecting their money away from the ACFA and to the fund. The ABP wisely will not allow any of its share of the check-off to be redirected into the development fund.
The establishment of an industry development entity with a steady income, governed by both groups, is a sensible and much needed decision. It is already being called Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency Version 2 – that original agency was shamelessly terminated by the Minister of Agriculture. If the NDP government wants to redeem itself on that issue it should assign any budgeted cattle industry development funds to the new industry-controlled entity. But don’t hold your breath – that would imply the government made a mistake in terminating the agency. I expect the industry will have to wait until after the next election for any such enlightenment. But I digress.
The proposed agreement is not a done deal yet – the Alberta government has to agree to the arrangement and decide whether they should hold a plebiscite on the proposal to return to a non-refundable check-off. I expect some folks who are against this change may be lobbying the government or launching a petition for a plebiscite. That would take time and, and in my view, cause needless discord and expense. But this NDP government has a history of dubious decisions about agriculture related issues, so a plebiscite or postponing a decision until after the next election is a distinct possibility. The latter may prove to be risky for the ABP as it was a non-NDP government that brought in the refundable regulation in 2009. Cattle industry politics – it just never ends.