A new trade deal with China is good news for Alberta cattle producers.Postmedia

By GRAHAM HICKS

Why is beef so expensive, and pork so cheap?

A nice four-pound (two kilogram) pork tenderloin for the family’s Sunday get together clocks in at a reasonable $20. The equivalent prime rib beef roast – two kilograms – would cost about $80!

You can’t even buy a prime rib roast anymore! At the west-end Superstore earlier this week, all the roasts were cheaper cuts of beef – outside round for $13 a kilogram, blade roasts for $15 a kilogram. “We don’t make prime rib roasts anymore,” the meat counter clerk said. “They’re so expensive. People just don’t buy them.”

Do you not vaguely remember a time when a good roast of beef and a pork tenderloin cost about the same? When beef ribs, kilo for kilo, were close to pork chops in price? When a 16-ounce porterhouse or a t-bone steak in a good restaurant didn’t cost a jaw-dropping $40 to $50?

The only comparable price point today is ground pork and ground beef, both in the same $7.50 to $8 a kilogram price range. That’s how McDonald’s and A&W keep their burger prices reasonably constant. It’s also about volume. Almost half the meat from feedlot-fattened cattle, and almost all the meat from old cows and bulls, isn’t good for much else besides hamburger.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” says Edmonton agricultural consultant Jerry Bouma. “From a nutritional, taste and meat quality point of view, the price difference at the supermarket makes no sense whatsoever.”

Some of the price difference is intrinsic, Bouma says.  Pound for pound, pork can be produced far more efficiently, i.e. at less cost, than beef. A sow (a female pig) can produce 26 piglets a year. Each can grow to a slaughter weight of 100 kilograms inside six months. Cows only produce one calf a year (other than rare twins). Each calf will take 18 months and consume much hay and grain to grow to a slaughter weight of 500 kilograms.

Fine and dandy. But that doesn’t explain why, 10, 15, 20 years ago, beef and pork prices went hand-in-hand.

Prices are high today, because there’s not enough beef!

Where’s the beef? More accurately, where are the beef producers?

There’s a shortage of cattle because there’s a shortage of cow/calf producers … also known as ranchers.

“The average age of Alberta’s ranchers is 65,” says Jerry. “They are no longer willing to be out there in February tracking down their cows on horseback over thousands of acres to see how calving is going. And the next generation isn’t much interested in taking over.”

The number of cow/calf producers has shrunk from 30,000 in 2005 to 18,000 today, says Rich Smith of the Alberta Beef Producers Association.  “Yes, the herds have grown in size,” says Smith. “Four hundred was a big herd 15 years ago. Today a big herd is a 1,000 cows, but there’s simply not enough cow/calf operators.”

So that’s the dilemma in a nutshell. Fewer farmers = fewer cows = fewer calves = fewer high-grade heifers and steers going to the packers = less high-end beef = consumer demand = higher prices.

So why hasn’t the free market responded? Outside of dairy, cattlemen in Canada are not constrained by provincial supply management boards.

If beef prices are so good for the farmers, why aren’t giant agricultural corporations moving into the cow-calf business, growing herds from 1,000 to tens of thousands? After all, half of Alberta’s pigs come from just 10 mega-pig operations. High volume means greater efficiencies, means lower production costs.

It’s simply not economical, says Bouma, no matter how you look at it, to feed cows on anything but open pasture. And while incremental biological/breeding efficiencies never stop, nobody sees the day when one cow can drop four or five calves a year, when young cattle can be ready for slaughter at nine rather than 18 months.

Cheap beef – despite the cyclical nature of pig/cattle/chicken production – may well be a thing of the past. Beef, in general, is fast becoming a “premium” meat.  Because of the expense, having a good cut of prime beef or a beautiful thick steak will be saved for the rarest of occasions.

In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, set in mid-19th Century England, young Tiny Tim is terribly excited about the family’s Christmas goose dinner. Because it was the only time of the year the Cratchit family could afford such a luxury!

Oh mother, Tiny Tim’s cry of joy will be in the years to come. A prime rib! Can you believe it! A prime rib roast for Christmas!!!!”