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Exodus of America’s wild west

It appears that spring is here to stay, and though I know this past winter wasn’t one for the record books, it sure seemed long to me. I recently took a much-needed vacation to a couple of my favourite rattlesnake states – Arizona and Nevada.

 Being early April, it was a little early for snakes, but it shouldn’t have been too soon for spring calves, but I saw precious few. I have made many trips to the Southwest over the years, and seeing the horned cattle is one of my favourite parts. But I saw so few beef animals this time through that it was downright disturbing. And I have pretty secluded spots – I always drive down, and I go through a lot of backcountry getting to different locales for different rattler species, and I know a lot of the ranches. And a lot of those ranches looked pretty empty. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say cattle volume in the Southwest appears to be down by about half compared to 10 years ago.

 Of course, unlike our grasslands in Alberta and Saskatchewan, a lot of that ground probably isn’t well suited for grazing to begin with, but it’s still sad because I wonder what’s become of those producers. And let’s face it – there’s some self-interest at play too. For our integrated business to work, we need a certain volume of cattle to keep the system lubricated. Packers need volume to get their production efficiencies, and if there aren’t enough cattle over time, we’re going to lose plants. We all know the numbers game and what’s at stake, but seeing such a stark display of this new era was a sobering experience.

 The other thing I noticed several times was how visible the price increases in beef were at the food service level. Several restaurants had notes tapes to their menus or placards on their tables apologizing for having to raise the price of their beef dishes, but none of them explained why prices were so high. They would say things like, “Due to the unprecedented cost of beef, we have had to raise menu prices.” I don’t recall seeing anything like this anywhere in Canada, but please let me know if you’ve run into it here.

 One aspect of the beef business in the U.S. that I love is how frank and open the restaurant industry is about the reality of a good steak – it means we eat an animal that  was once alive. Of course, to us this is a no-brainer, but we all know how detached consumers have become from meat and meat production over the years. Take, for example, the newspaper letter to the editor that chastises hunters for killing animals when they could have bought meat from the grocery store where no animals were harmed. Whether that’s a legit letter to the editor or just an Internet spoof, I have no idea, but as a lot of us in the industry know, it certainly could be real.

 My mother, who has lived in the city her entire life, came to live with us for a year, (which was a challenge in itself, believe me!) but she has real issues with my hunting. The funniest part is that she loves a good steak, but the idea of eating something “wild” literally turned her stomach. However, when I would point out the beef cattle all around us, she would quickly forget how much she liked steak, and refuse to acknowledge the fact that the animals she was looking at would one day be food. It’s a classic example of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” – the mental stress or discomfort experienced by individuals who hold contradictory beliefs or ideas at the same time.

 But in the U.S., the food service industry has left a little less space for this to occur. There are restaurants there named after stockyards, beef breeds and other obvious direct animal linkages. And many steakhouses will literally have a giant statue of a big bull on the roof or even somewhere inside the building. Sure, maybe an uppity French food reviewer might find that a little garish, but I think it’s an incredibly healthy trait both for producers as well as consumers. (Besides, what some consider garish, I generally consider brazenly cool. Just ask my French ex-boyfriend who thought my skull collection belonged in the trash instead of in the bedroom!)

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