The beef industry is facing some incredible challenges — rising input costs and increased debt loads, lower returns on investment, more farm bankruptcies and families exiting the business, ongoing trade wars, commodity markets in the tanks, increased consolidation squeezing small producers out and less competition and less leverage to get the best price for your calves.
I recently attended a local cattlemen’s meeting hosted by the Foothills Cattle Producers, and as I enjoyed a roast beef dinner hosted by area agri-businesses, I wondered to myself, “How many of these folks will still be in business in 10 years? And how about the rural agricultural enterprises who rely on the farmers’ and ranchers’ patronage?”
In all of the challenges that we face, the squeaky wheel that seems to be getting the most attention is the Beef Checkoff Program.
That’s what we’ll tackle today in part three of four of the Ranching Voices series, which covers this recent event I attended and captures some of the most popular sentiments about the issues plaguing our beef industry today.
After listening to Suzy Geppert, executive director of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council (SDBIC), present at this meeting and patiently answer questions about the state’s promotional efforts and how the dollar is best utilized, I have some opinions on this topic that I feel are worth sharing.
In case you missed the first two installments of the Ranching Voices series, you can read them here:
- Ranching Voices Part 2: DV Auction’s Corbitt Wall on what ails us
- Ranching Voices Part 1: How can producers take back control?
So back to the Beef Checkoff—it seems to me there are a lot of misconceptions about what our dollar investment can do, what it can’t and why it exists in the first place.
To kick things off, here is a bit of a history lesson on the program, courtesy of Greg Hanes, Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) CEO.
Hanes writes, “The Beef Checkoff was created through the Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 as part of the Farm Bill. It was initiated as an effort driven by producers who saw an important need for more promotion and research to stave off falling beef demand in the late 1970s /1980s and was designed to be producer driven at both a local and national level. Immediately following its passing, the Beef Promotion and Research Order was created, outlining the detailed rules for governance over the program, funding distribution, contractor requirements, etc.
The areas where checkoff funding can be used are clearly defined: promotion, research, consumer information, industry information, and producer communications. Conversely, lobbying or ‘influencing governmental action or policy’ is also clearly prohibited.”
It’s also worth noting that there are many contractors who utilize our checkoff dollars for beef promotions, research and education.
CBB’s eight contracting organizations for Fiscal Year 2020 (Oct. 2019 – Sept. 2020) include:
- American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture
- Cattlemen’s Beef Board
- Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education
- Meat Import Council of America
- National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
- National Livestock Producers Association
- North American Meat Institute
- United States Cattlemen’s Association
In addition, checkoff contractors work with four subcontracting organizations including:
- Kansas State University
- North East Beef Promotion Initiative
- National Institute for Animal Agriculture
- United States Meat Export Federation
Full disclosure, I, myself, have been a subcontractor of the Beef Checkoff Program. Now before you write me off as having a biased interest here, I share this only to highlight how I’ve gotten to know this program so well. I hope you’ll keep reading.
Many of you might remember my second children’s book, “Can-Do Cowkids,” which was spearheaded by the Georgia Beef Board and partially paid for with checkoff dollars.
Also, having participated in the National Beef Ambassador Program in 2006-07, which was a project of the American National CattleWomen, I saw from a young age the benefits of putting the checkoff to work in urban areas. I also got a first-hand glimpse at how our dollars are spent and the process each project must go through to prove it meets the criteria of the checkoff.
Later, in college, I went through the Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) training program, and later even taught a training or two of my own. I like to think I learned a thing or two through this checkoff-funded program, which has now enabled so many advocates to go out and effectively share the beef production story on social media.
Oh, and I really enjoy a flat iron steak, and that new beef cut exists all thanks to research conducted by the Beef Checkoff. And it’s pretty darn cool to see our Japanese customers embracing our great-tasting U.S. beef, thanks to work done by the United States Meat Export Federation! Let’s not forget about World Health Organization’s claim that red meat causes cancer and how an issues management team funded by the Beef Checkoff helped to halt that rumor before it spread like wildfire around the world!
Finally, I recently went through applying for an Authorization Request (AR) in my home state of South Dakota. My proposal was turned down after a rigorous review of my project, and while I wish the AR would have been approved because I believe wholeheartedly in the value of my product, as a rancher, I am grateful that this isn’t just a “good ole” boys club where dollars are doled out to friends and peers, but instead, careful scrutiny goes into how the dollar is spent to give the cattlemen and women the best bang for their buck!
All that being said, there are certainly problems with our checkoff that could be addressed.
Is it forced government speech? Is it an unfair tax that only helps the packer and the importer? Are the contractors corrupt and finding ways to use the dollar for lobbying? We’ve all heard these questions and accusations and then some.
Geppert tackled these questions head on when she said, “We are up against the groups with $280 million budgets. As an industry, we need to figure out a way to come together and tackle these ongoing problems. We are stronger together. You can find problems in anything if you’re looking for it. My question to you is when we are dealing with entities with that kind of budget, do you want to work together to make us stronger or do you want to start all over from scratch? Do you have the time? Do you have a plan? We need to figure out a way to make this deal work for all of us.”
So let me say this first — loud and clear — if reform and audits are needed — let’s do it! If we no longer want the USDA and the dramatic changes in leadership that come from the political leanings of various Administrations to stifle our speech, then let’s give power back to the state beef councils! (A perfect example of this — every beef promotion must be in line with the outrageously flawed Dietary Guidelines for Americans! Yuck!)
In a nutshell, if it needs fixing, let’s do it now before the Hollywoods of the world take control of the White House. But let’s do it with intentionality and not in the bull in a China shop method that is currently being pursued.
To be clear, this “fixing” must be done on a policy side, and as the rules are written, the Beef Checkoff itself is run completely outside of that realm. In other words, it’s pointless to attack your state beef council leadership; action must be taken through other avenues. Go to your beef council meetings and ask lots of questions to learn more, but for goodness sakes, give these folks a break; they are just doing their jobs as the law guides them!
Also, I must say, for those who are calling to eliminate the checkoff completely — are you not worried that one of our biggest adversaries, the Humane Society of the United States, who would also like to see our one collective voice taken out, as well?
Isn’t it a bit concerning that activists are getting into bed with cattlemen’s organizations to further divide us and increase our internal fighting? And they are doing this because it benefits them very, very much! After all, if we are too busy fighting amongst each other, we won’t notice how much business they are getting done in Washington, D.C.
Ever heard of the PACT Act? Guess what? It passed unanimously and has major ramifications on animal use and ownership in this country. Most of us didn’t hear about it until it was too late.
Because while we turned our eyes away from the activists who are openly determined to put us out of business, we have been too busy fighting with our neighbors and whining about a dollar tax that was created by producers with the best of intentions at heart!
Let’s ask the biggest question of all — if the Beef Checkoff is eliminated, how are you going to use your own independent voice for good?
How many of us are going to stop work during calving season to handle a crisis such as Foot and Mouth Disease or to tackle yet another rumor on cattle and climate change? How many of us have effective platforms to reach millennial moms in urban cities? How many of us are ready to talk about antibiotic use when ABC News calls? How many of us are willing to answer tough questions from vegan college students when they want to take a survey of your operation?
Now, I know what you’ll say next — “But, Amanda, I don’t sell beef; I sell cattle! None of this matters because it doesn’t trickle down to me!”
While that may be entirely true, let me ask you this: What happens to your markets when consumers in the U.S. and abroad stop buying beef altogether in favor of fake meats? Do you have anywhere for your cattle to go? Do you also run a feedlot, a packing plant and a retail market to merchandise your own product? Whether we like it or not, we exist in a supply chain with many moving parts. One cannot exist without the other. And if beef demand tanks, then you just own a herd of big, hay-eating pets and absolutely no way to market them.
On this end, Geppert said, “I carry a lot of weight on my shoulders. Every decision the board of directors makes on your behalf is impacting you. I can’t control your prices. Our role with the checkoff is connecting with the consumer, and I can assure you that we are doing everything humanly possible to move our beef product and keep demand going.”
So if you’re in the cattle business, not the beef business like so many of us are, wouldn’t your time be better spent finding a way to earn a premium or gain some leverage on the cattle you have?
Instead, we are spending all of our energies on lawsuits and division that only results in hurting our promotional, research and educational arms while also putting more producers out of business.
But that’s just my two cents.
My final thoughts — the Beef Checkoff is your tool, your dollar and your investment, so let's use it for good as it was intended!
Why throw the baby out with the bath water when, instead, you could actively fight for change, reform or improvements that could be made to make the best voice we have even better?
I don’t think the pioneers of this program had it wrong when they knew we needed to address misconceptions and work together to educate the public. That’s why we have so many differing voices and organizations who contract the dollar! Let’s use what they started and make it better for all of us. Without it, what other tools do we have?
I welcome the debate and feedback but only ask that comments remain kind, productive and respectful.
Stay tuned for the fourth and final segment of the Ranching Voices series, where we will tackle Country-of-Origin Labeling, the United States Beef Integrity Act and hear from South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds!
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.