It’s a bull!

Despite having grown up in rural Manitoba, I have never spent any great amount of time on a farm. 

As a youth under the age of 10, I visited my great-uncle Steini’s farm near Ashern from time to time, doing my best to excite the cattle into a wild stampede in my youthful exuberance to move them from one pasture to another. That is, until my great-uncle regarded me with great concern when I confronted one particularly big specimen.

“It’s a bull,” he told me in a gentle voice.

“Bull?” I queried, not knowing that horns, a nose ring and certain appendages were a sure sign that what I thought was a docile cow was more like the el toros found in some Spanish bullring.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he further warned, all the time keeping his words at a low and barely audible pitch.

I then noticed that he was standing on the other side of the fence from me, gesturing with his hand to come in his direction. 

“Slowly, slowly,” he said in a low voice. “And, keep your eye on him!”

At this point, I could discern that something was indeed wrong. I glanced again at the animal now identified as a bull and saw the beast staring intently at me, thick shoulder muscles rippling. 

In a moment of panic, I thought of running, but my great-uncle kept urging me to keep my eyes on the bull and walk over slowly to the fence. I did as I was told. I knew that there was no other choice or suffer the wrath of the bull which was appearing to scrape at the ground just like in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Once over the fence, my great-uncle’s voice became sterner, though he was a gentle man seldom taken to shouting out in anger. He explained my folly and how  really big animals were not to be trusted. They could appear docile, he said, but the next minute they could charge and my tiny frame would be crushed.

Whenever I visited his cattle ranch in the future I took his words to heart. Never, never again would I enter into such a compromising situation.

Sadly, my kindly great-uncle died many years ago, but his memory was again evoked with all the kerfuffle over the transportation of live cattle over the border.

I wondered how he would have reacted to the mad cow crisis. Knowing his temperament and stoicism, I suspect he would have shrugged his shoulders and said something to the effect that all that could be done was wait and make sure the powers-that-be got word about how much the cattle producers were suffering. And, they have been suffering. It is estimated that Manitoba cattle producers have lost somewhere around $770 million and all Canadian producers have lost some $7 billion.

The farm Steini owned is now in the hands of my cousin Baldur, whom I have been told by a friend has managed to keep it afloat during the crisis. According to my friend, Doug, who is a now a semi-retired, part-time rancher in the Ashern area with a home in Winnipeg — his offspring run the ranch — my cousin has turned into quite a businessman in the cattle industry. Good for him.

But, while he has been doing well, one has to wonder about all the others who have not been able to survive, all because a group of American government officials and lobbyists panicked after the discovery of a cow with BSE in Alberta two years ago. Once the science was in and most came to realize the extent to which the two country’s herds were integrated,  the border should have been quickly  re-opened. But, that didn’t happen. Instead, a group of American cattle producers, going under the heading R-CALF, managed to convince a Montana judge to keep the border closed, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture had signalled its intention to re-open the border.

Scientific evidence finally prevailed in another court and the the border was re-opened. Canadian live cattle under 30 months of age are now crossing the border into the U.S. Still, there is the looming threat of another closure, although not as immediate because the same Montana judge who was to hear arguments on July 27 to determine if Canadian live cattle should be permitted to continue crossing the U.S. border, has now indicated he will be reveiwing the successful appeal and decide whether or not to go ahead with a hearing.

The only good thing to come out of the crisis is that Canadians are now building more slaughterhouse capacity. With more slaughter capacity, producers will not be as reliant — as in the past — on Americans to butcher their cattle for market, and thus be better able to ride out future crisises. I know my great-uncle would have considered more slaughter capacity a good thing since he prided himself on his independence and didn’t believe in being beholding to anyone. 

Let’s hope that Canadian cattle producers don’t return en masse to American meat-packers — to do so, is just too great a gamble with their future well-being.