OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian cattle and hog farmers will have access to a total of C$3.3 billion ($3.3 billion) in loans to help alleviate high feed costs and low prices, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Monday.
Ritz presented legislation to Parliament to amend an existing law, saying the changes would give producers easier access to cash advances and increase the amounts available.
"If all producers take advances to which they are entitled, we estimate C$3.3 billion in repayable advances would be available," Ritz told reporters in Ottawa.
The amendments would add "severe economic hardship" as a condition for emergency advances and would allow farmers to use their livestock inventory as security against loans for the first time.
Individual farmers would be eligible for up to C$400,000 in loans, of which the first C$100,000 would be interest-free, Ritz said. Previously, the maximum cash advance was C$25,000.
The proposed changes come one day before the Conservative government unveils its budget for 2008-09. Ritz said he presented the livestock aid bill separately in the hopes it could be enacted more quickly, possibly by this weekend, and the money could start flowing in March.
Livestock farmers are seeing poor returns brought on by record high grain prices, poor meat prices and the surging Canadian dollar, which has hurt the export value of meat and livestock.
They have been asking the government for help in covering losses.
"Hog farmers are struggling, facing the worst crisis in their farming history," said Clare Schlegel, president of the Canadian Pork Council. "What has been announced today will provide the breathing room that we have been asking for."
Reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson