Canfax a key player in getting beef industry established By: Lee Hart

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The success of Canfax over the past 50 years recognizes the commitment of people and the use of technology to create a premier livestock market information source the Canadian agriculture industry has come to rely upon.

Two of the early cattle feeders in Alberta say the creation of the Canfax market information service 50 years ago was fundamental in helping a fledging beef industry in Western Canada find its legs.

Wyett Swanson, a long-time beef producer from the Provost area, and Peter Adams who farmed and fed cattle for many years in the Czar area — both east-central Alberta communities — say 50 or more years ago producers were truly at the mercy of commissioned agents and packing plants in terms of knowing what a fair price was.

“You pretty well knew if a buyer came into your yard on the weekend, you were going to be offered a low price,” said Swanson, speaking of his early days in the cattle feeding business. “If they showed up on the weekend, it was pretty certain that prices would be higher on Monday, but we really had no way of knowing.”

Peter Adams, who was fresh out of university when he started feeding cattle in the mid-1960s, said the only option at the time was to deal with commissioned agents who worked on behalf of packing plants.  “I was young, just starting out and pretty naive,” said Adam. “These agents handled the whole deal and would tell you that you got a good price, but I didn’t know whether it was or not. You had to take their word for it; we had no way of knowing what the best price was.”

These fresh faced, young beef producers along with several other producers of the day, decided if they could come up with a system of sharing price information — a price discovery mechanism — they’d be much less vulnerable when dealing with cattle buyers and packers. Working through the Western Stock Growers Association (WSGA) they decided to model a Canadian price discovery system after a newly created Cattlefax system in the United States. This was the beginning of Canfax in 1969. It was a turning point for the Canadian beef industry.

Although a bit cumbersome, it was a fairly high-tech system of the day. Five telex machines were established at key points across the province. As buyer offers or bids were made to individual cattle feeders, they would report those prices to the telex locations. That information would then be relayed by telex for central collection at the WSGA office in Calgary, Alta. All bids and price information would be assembled and made available to member cattle feeders. It was a start.

“For the Provost area the sale day was Wednesday,” recalled Swanson. “Buyers would come out and look at the cattle on Monday or Tuesday and then make an offer with bid closing at noon Wednesday. We would look at the bids and then immediately call Canfax and tell them what we were being offered, and they would tell us what others were being offered. We had about half an hour to get all this done before deciding by 1 p.m. if a bid would be accepted or not.”

Swanson said it was a huge step forward from previous and limited marketing options. He recalled bringing loads of cattle by truck to a packing plant in Edmonton. Buyers would look and make an offer. If Swanson didn’t like the offer, he’d drive the truck to next packing plant to see if they could do any better. “As the cattle feeding industry developed eventually packers would send buyers out to the farm. “They’d make an offer but again you didn’t know what anyone else was paying, so you didn’t know if you were being offered a good price or not,” said Swanson.

Adams, who eventually sold feeding operations in the Czar area before moving south to Strathmore, east of Calgary, said the tide began to turn as more cattle feeders began reporting prices to the fledgling Canfax service. “Once we began to gain some knowledge about what prices were being offered to other feeders, we gained confidence and experience,” said Adam. “Eventfully we began dealing directly with the packing plants and bypassed agents altogether.”

The early version of Canfax coordinated through the WSGA and a similar but separate system in Huron County, Ontario, operated for a couple years before being turned over to the Canadian Cattleman’s Association in 1971 and established as a national market information service under the Canfax name.

“It was a pretty important step in the development of the Canadian beef industry,” said Swanson. “Everything was just really starting back in the 1960s. In those days our area in east-central Alberta was considered the hub of the cattle feeding industry in Alberta.  There were packing plants in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary and later Lakeside at Brooks. Feeders in this area were at the centre of it. We had all these market options within a 200-mile radius. And with the Canfax service we finally had a better handle on prices and the best marketing opportunities.”

Adams said establishing Canfax was an important element in organizing the feeding industry. “Canfax was really key in helping to establish the cattle feeders’ association,” said Adams. “Cattle feeders would meet in Red Deer and we’d just share our knowledge and experience with each other. Everyone was sharing information and trying to help each other which really helped in establishing and strengthening our industry.”

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