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Western Canadian Dairy Seminar confronts hot topics

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 27 February 2015

For the past 32 years, the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar (WCDS) has focused on providing novel ideas, information and solutions relevant to current and emerging challenges of the Canadian dairy industry. The 2015 event, to be held March 10-13 at the Sheraton Red Deer in Red Deer, Alberta, will do the same.

With a theme of “Taking Care of Dairy Business,” this year’s seminar will emphasize issues faced by the dairy industry today, such as production efficiency, consumer perceptions, cow health and welfare, and economic sustainability.

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“The business of dairying extends far beyond the farm and includes provincial and national dairy organizations, dairy supply companies, research institutes and consumers,” says Lorraine Doepel, WCDS program chairwoman.

“We chose this theme because the 2015 WCDS will cover topics beyond the daily management of the dairy farm; broad issues that affect the industry as a whole and that impact consumers will be discussed.”

To kick off the seminars on March 11, three speakers will address hot topics in the industry. Below, each presenter answers a couple of questions about their presentation.

In addition to the formal program, the seminar offers opportunities for participants to have informal discussions with the speakers and industry service representatives.

A trade show will be open from Wednesday through Friday morning and pre-conference activities include farm tours, a producer workshop on synchronization and a symposium for nutritionists.

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Further details are available online. For additional conference information, contact Kate Davies, conference coordinator, by email or call (780) 492-3236.

jennifer walkerDairy cow welfare – motivation for improvement
Jennifer Walker
Dean Foods

Why is this topic important?

The dairy industry’s main talking points have always been, “Milk is safe and healthy” and “We take good care of our cows.” Activists and competitors for the beverage space are challenging both of these tenets.

Because consumers associate animal health and welfare with food safety, it is critical we demonstrate that when it comes to the health and welfare of our cows, we are always working to get it right.

What do you hope attendees will take away from this presentation?

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Attendees will learn what animal welfare is, why it is important and what areas we need to focus on when it comes to dairy and how they can find motivation within improving animal health and welfare.

Mike petersonLooking out instead of looking in – the opportunities from open markets
Mike Petersen
Special Agricultural Trade Envoy for New Zealand

Why is this topic important?

In New Zealand, we export about 90 percent of what we produce. While the domestic market needs will always need to be met, in New Zealand we spend a considerable amount of time on gaining market access and developing new markets and new products to meet the needs of discerning consumers.

We know that globally, demand for dairy products is growing rapidly and recent forecasts indicate that we will need to grow supply at a rate of about 20 billion litres per year to meet demand. That increase is the same amount as the production from the total New Zealand dairy industry every year.

The New Zealand experience would suggest there are far more opportunities for farmers from looking out and growing export markets than looking in and defending the status quo.

What do you hope attendees will take away from this presentation?

I hope that I can offer a global perspective (from a New Zealand point of view) about the opportunities for us all as farmers in a world that is changing at an incredible pace.

Opening markets and breaking down barriers to trade needs to be a priority for this to happen. Creating some discussion about how Canada might capitalize on these incredible opportunities would be great.

bruce muirheadWhy supply management should remain in Canada
Bruce Muirhead
University of Waterloo

Why is this topic important?

I will be talking about the need to preserve supply management for those sectors who use it as their organizing paradigm. It remains vitally important, as it is practically the only option available that levels the playing field in terms of the power relationship between producers and processors/supermarkets.

As a result, farmers are not price takers as they are in some other jurisdictions, but price negotiators. And that is important.

I have gone through the records of Ontario’s commission of inquiry into the milk industry that reported in 1963, and some of the briefs and letters sent to the commissioners are heart-rending.

Most often, these are from small farmers who lament their inability to make ends meet given their distance from a dairy or their inability to negotiate a fair, living price with a corporate entity many times larger and more powerful than themselves.

Allowing dairy farmers to earn a living wage from their labour is a most reasonable proposition, but one that often is sacrificed on the altar of supermarket demand for ever-lower prices. It seems as if the consumer is the only factor in determining that equation.

Those days have not passed. Ask dairy farmers in England, Australia or Germany, and they will say their systems have not worked. In England, for example, farmers are offered (forced?) to take 20 pence per litre for their milk, which requires 30 pence per litre to produce.

Some Australian dairy farmers are selling their herds to China as the only way to make money in the industry – the $1 (Australian dollar) per litre offered by the two massive supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, does not come close to covering costs.

Even in Fonterra-led New Zealand, milk farmers are concerned as very low international prices throw their industry into disarray. Four have committed suicide since the cooperative lowered its milk payout per kilogram of milk solid to $4.70 (New Zealand dollar), and 14 have done so in the last six months.

The headline of a recent issue of the New Zealand Herald blared that “Stress too much for farmers: Four deaths in December [2014] as rural sector feels financial pressure.”

In the UK, the BBC featured a story that began “MPs urge action on milk price cuts: More needs to be done to protect dairy farmers from falls in milk prices – including new powers to fine supermarkets over disputes, MPs say.”

The dairy export market is not as robust as some critics in Canada have suggested. This sort of context was a primary reason for the introduction of supply management in the early 1970s and remains a primary consideration today.

I have not even talked about supply management’s role in Canadian food security and sovereignty and how it makes the family farm the critical unit in those sectors. If history tells us anything, it is that supply management is more relevant and critical in 2015 than it was when it was introduced.

What do you hope attendees will take away from this presentation?

Supply management remains critical for Canadian farmers. I have heard through a few grapevines that this current generation of farmers in supply-managed sectors has not lived through the tough times that their fathers and grandfathers did.

They aren’t aware of the deprivation, anxiety and stress that characterized farming in dairy, eggs, chicken and turkey in those days. Some might even think they could go it alone, as some wheat farmers believed. And most likely, some could.

But the vast majority would be in the same boat as dairy farmers in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and even in parts of the U.S., without the model now used, where those farmers hang on by their fingertips, one bad month from disaster.

That has nothing to do with entrepreneurship or innovation or ability, as some critics would have us believe. It has everything to do with power relationships. Quite simply, the supermarkets and processors are often multi-billion-dollar corporations, which easily outmatch the individual farmer.

There is strength in numbers as Canada’s supply-managed farmers have discovered and as even New Zealand farmers who belong to the massive cooperative, Fonterra, also know.

Although in the case of the latter, global prices do determine their welfare. When they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad, those livelihoods are horrible.  PD

Karen Lee
  • Karen Lee
  • Editor
  • Progressive Dairyman

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