My Weekly Column: The State of the Beef Industry

The State of the Beef Industry



I spent the past week in Phoenix, Arizona covering the Cattle Industry Annual Convention on behalf of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. Ohio’s beef industry is very important to the overall well being of the agricultural economy in our state, as is the animal agriculture segment in general. Livestock consume the largest proportion of the corn and soybean meal we produce in Ohio, and of course animal proteins are the most nutrient-dense source of sustenance on this planet.



In fact, let me spend a minute on that subject before I delve into the main topic on my mind this week: animal agriculture, as you’ve read here before, is under attack in this country. From animal rights activists to environmental fundamentalists, there is a constant struggle facing our nation’s livestock farmers. These family businesses strive to produce a wholesome, nutritious product profitably while instilling in the next generation the values of hard-work and good business that are the hallmark of family farming operations.



And yet these activists, with their primary goal of ending the production of meat in this country, fail to acknowledge the invaluable nature of raising animals for meat production to our society. Along with the previously mentioned economic benefits a livestock farmer provides to the community, there are two other significant services these farms bring to their fellow man: stewardship of our natural resources, and the production of the best source of nutrition known to man.



First let me spend a moment on the notion of livestock producers and the environment. The farmers of our country are the first line of defense in maintaining and enhancing the quality of our environment and natural resources. While the Sierra Club, Hollywood jet-setters preach about the environment and Al Gore profits from his self-created global-warming hoax, farmers and ranchers across America are actually getting their hands dirty and doing something about the betterment of their surroundings. While there is a tendency to vilify larger family livestock operations, particularly concentrated feeding operations common in dairy, pork, and poultry businesses, the anti-livestock crowd ignore the fact that the proprietors of these operations live in the same communities, breath the same air, and drink the same water as their friends and neighbors.



In other words, if a farmer mishandles the organic nutrients his stock produce, the water supply from which he and his kids drink is affected, too. If he does a poor job managing the air quality in and around his facilities, he enjoys the same aroma in his backyard as do his next-door neighbors.



Finally, the livestock producer in this country keeps us well fed and healthy. Poultry, lamb, pork, and beef in particular are the best, most nutrient-dense sources of vitamins and minerals science has ever studied. By consuming the recommended quantities of these flavorful, enjoyable proteins, consumers are treated to not only an enjoyable eating experience, but are also taking care of their health by filling their bodies’ need for things like iron, zinc, and protein, among others. The amount of plant-based products one would have to consume to replace meat in the diet is considerable. As one wise man put it, seven days with no meat makes one weak.



Now, to the topic at hand: the Beef Checkoff. One of the major topics of discussion this week at the Cattle Industry Annual Convention centered on enhancements to the $1 per head Beef Checkoff producers invest when selling cattle. This investment is directed in the areas of research, promotion, and education, and are managed and directed by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. The 104 members of the Board represent farmers, retailers, meat processors, importers, and others with a stake in the successful and profitable production of beef. Created by an act of Congress in the mid-80’s the basic tenets of the Checkoff haven’t changed in over twenty years.



The world, however, has changed considerably in the past two decades. The value of a dollar bill, for example, has changed dramatically in the span of time since beef producers first the checkoff assessment. To that end, the value the Board is able to return to producers has diminished accordingly. This reality is concerning, because the return on investment to the producer of this small investment is astronomical. The value received for cattle in this country due to increased demand for beef at home and abroad is far above what economists tell us we would see absent those checkoff programs.



The producers who studied the checkoff and advised the Board on recommended enhancements strongly suggested an increase in the rate of assessment, to $2. Again, this is a very small investment in the future of the industry, but a change that is necessary for the continued success of the industry. Dave Bateman, immediate past Chairman of the Board, told me in Phoenix that the thing about change is that only babies like it, and even they make a stink about it. Dave’s right, and that fear of change will be the single biggest challenge in seeing the handful of recommended enhancements come to pass.



The Board voted to pass these recommendations along to the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Naturally, given the very recent nature of Vilsack’s confirmation, and the as of yet unnamed members of his senior staff and sub-cabinet level appointments, the recommendations are expected to sit idle at USDA for some time. Once the USDA team is more complete, the Department will determine if they will make changes to the Order, and if Congressional action is needed in updating the Act.



It is the fervent hope of all of us who believe in the accomplishments of the checkoff that these enhancements will be accepted and adopted as quickly as possible.



In the not-so-good-news department, the Board also voted for an across the board $2.5 million cut in the operation budget of the checkoff due to a drop-off in checkoff collections. As the number of cattle in the US inventory contracts, there are fewer sales of cattle taking place from which to assess the checkoff. Likewise, due to the unintended consequences of mandatory country of origin labeling, there are far fewer cattle coming across the border from Canada and Mexico, cattle that are typically processed as value-added products, and shipped back to our neighbors to the North and South. These transactions, of course, are all also subject to the checkoff, so when the number of cattle crossing the border drops, so does the collection of checkoff dollars.



In all, I was encouraged by my trip to Phoenix. The cattlemen who serve in the leadership roles of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, the Ohio Beef Council, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are the best and brightest in the industry, and the staff members they have assembled to work on their behalf are extremely competent professionals. Stay engaged, stay informed, and remain optimistic about the future of the beef industry. I am.