Cowboys now singing “home, home on the oil rig?”
Canada’s oil boom sure puts the broke in Brokeback Mountain after luring former cowboys away from the farm and towards the oil patch. Since the spike in Alberta’s oil production, ranch hands have been throwing in the lasso to work for the fossil fuel industry where they can make nearly twice as much money. The shift in the workforce has left many cattle ranches with less than a lone ranger to keep up with work.
According to Canadian government data, ranches currently hold about 13.3 million heads, the lowest amount of cattle since 1993. In addition, beef processors have reduced plant operations to about 70 percent, and meat packers are predicted to slaughter as few as 2.4 million cattle next year, the lowest since 1963. This has caused beef prices to soar 40 percent within the last year, reaching an all-time high in Canada at C$295.50 per 100 pounds. Even with the record prices, the ranches are hardly breaking even.
One ranch owner, Tim Stewart, is considering selling his 4,000-head ranch that his family has owned since 1910. According to Stewart, “It’s impossible to find workers. If someone came along with a big fat checkbook, we’d probably walk away.”
While the initial decline in cattle ranching was due to flooding, drought, and mad cow disease over the past decade, it’s clear the lack of workers has caused the industry to be less stable than a mechanical bull. Chairman of Alberta Beef Producers, Greg Bowie, said, “The oil patch is rolling along pretty good right now, and it makes it difficult for agriculture to compete with the same labor force. It’s difficult to get and retain good labor, and in a lot of cases, that’s crucial.” Yet when the average wage of a livestock worker (C$44,870) is compared to that of a petroleum worker (C$73,105), it’s a no-brainer which route a person will choose. Now, 72 percent of farm employers are reporting hiring difficulties, with 25 percent reporting unfilled vacancies for more than four months.
It’s uncertain whether the oil patches will be a permanent home to Canadian cowboys, or if the expansion of newer energy sources will have them galloping back to the farm. In this duel, it looks like the cattle industry had the first draw, but the oil industry had the better shot.
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