They say you can't judge a book by its cover. Eric Davis of Bruneau, ID, who becomes president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) this month, is such a case in point.
Davis is a cattleman — he's always been a cattleman, he'll always be a cattleman. He's also tends to be quiet, unassuming and, at times, comically self-deprecating. He's a man with whom just about anyone in the cattle business can identify.
But don't let this Bruneau, ID, rancher and cattle feeder's easy-going exterior fool you into thinking he's not a scrapper. All you have to do is take a look at the geographic environment of which he's definitely a product to know he's tough and persevering — with roots set solid in the cattle business.
Davis' family has lived in Owyhee County (population 8,392) since 1949 — first growing alfalfa seed, then in the late 1950s forming the partnerships that created Bruneau Cattle Co. With Eric's father Gene and uncle Don Davis at the helm in those days, Bruneau Cattle Co. expanded its range beef cow operation, later adding a commercial feedyard. The Davises started feeding their own calves in the early '60s and shortly thereafter began taking in neighbors' calves.
“When somebody else wanted to feed cattle, we built another pen,” says Davis. “That's the way we grew.”
Today, the family operation is supported by a commercial operation of 1,200 Hereford-based mother cows and a 7,000-head capacity feedlot. Most calves are fed to finish, with 80% being custom-fed cattle.
“We're 60 miles from IBP in Boise and another 300 to the next closest packing plants in Hiram, UT, and Pasco, WA,” he says.
Davis sells fed cattle to IBP on a real-time formula, which he says has worked well for them. “I'm not doing my customers or me any favors if I don't go with a formula as long as we can surround ourselves with cattle that grade 70% Choice or better,” he says.
Does that make him a captive supplier — even though he doesn't have a contract or anything that people think of as officially being “captive?”
“It probably does,” he says. “I often say, though, that for a little ol' cattle feeder in Bruneau, the only thing worse than one packer is no packer.”
If it weren't for the nearby packing plant, Davis says he would otherwise be relegated to backgrounding calves.
“We might learn how to send fed cattle those extra miles, but that extra trucking eats into profits pretty fast,” he says.
Marketing Point Man
Davis put his cattle marketing experience to work for the industry last summer when he chaired NCBA's Price Discovery Think Tank. Under his leadership, the 12-member group representing all segments of the industry dissected a long list of profitability concerns. From price reporting to futures markets, no stone was left unturned in the group's examination.
“There's profitability in our industry, but the disparity between segments in the share of the margins raises as much concern as it ever has,” says Davis, who is also a member of the Cattle-Fax board of directors. “While we can't take all the risk out of our business, it's NCBA's goal to provide the opportunity for profitability in the industry.”
He says markets will continue to evolve. As more price transparency develops from segment to segment, the industry will be in a better position to value cattle as opposed to simply pricing cattle, he adds.
“We need to find an alternative to cash prices as the basis for determining the value for cattle sold on formulas and grids,” explains Davis. “We're not trying to replace cash; we just believe the comprehensive cutout value — in addition to the Choice and Select cutout values and USDA's by-product values — can provide another point from which to base formulas and grids. And we may find other things out there that can help, too.”
That NCBA think tank continues to gather information and flesh out details of how cattle producers can find their place in the evolution from price to value discovery in the cattle markets, Davis says.
“We believe in free-market forces, but they can be a little slow in getting profits back in producers' pockets. It's NCBA's objective to improve this situation.” says Davis. “I think that before long we'll have some different and additional pricing pegs to hang our hats on.”
While marketing topics are on the front burner of today's cattle industry, Davis warns against letting other fundamental issues — like the environment — simmer on the back burner. This concept hits home when Davis displays a southwest Idaho ownership map, revealing a region dominated by public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Idaho state lands.
“A lot of people don't understand the mixed-mosaic land ownership in regions like this,” says Davis. “This brings a whole set of environmental issues to the forefront for us — we've had a lot of experience battling these kinds of environmental issues and the related threats to our property rights.”
Many in the cattle business can recall the furor that erupted when the Bruneau Hot Springs snail was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in January 1993. The ruling encountered fierce opposition from local farmers and ranchers facing restrictions on the use of water from underlying warm water aquifers.
“It's hard enough to keep these small communities together without the threat and cost of these kinds of listings,” Davis says. “The snail listing is still a cloud hanging over our valley.”
Davis points to a laundry list of laws and regulations that are “infrastructural” in nature and still have to be addressed — the ESA, regulations over Confined Animal Feeding Operations and Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs/AFOs), the National Environmental Policy Act, and national clean air and water laws.
Helped presumably by the results of November's mid-term elections, “We may have a chance to do things legislatively now to put some common sense into these laws,” Davis says.
Other Top Concerns
While his agenda for the year is chock-full of issues, Davis lists these as most hot on his mind.
Country-of-origin labeling (COOL): NCBA's current policy recommends voluntary labeling, but the law now calls for mandatory labeling in two years.
“I hope we have the help of the industry to make COOL turn out the way folks intended it to work,” he says. “But I don't think the vehement proponents of COOL knew quite what all was going to come with COOL.”
For instance, Davis says, NCBA policy is opposed to mandatory identification (ID) of livestock. “But I'm afraid I see one issue leading to the other,” Davis says. “Now, we're going to have to address ID in our policy sessions. And, I hope we think it through very carefully.”
Food safety is an issue that is and will always be a major concern for NCBA, Davis says. NCBA has been involved in research, mostly at the packer level, to identify the best intervention strategies for E. coli. He adds that research into these strategies is critical to helping packers produce a safe product and to keeping burdensome and costly pathogen reduction systems out of the feeder and cow-calf segments.
“We have an obligation to keep intervention strategies in the appropriate places and avoid unnecessary costs and regulations,” Davis says. “But we need to go where the research and information we develop leads us.”
With the prospect of a constitutional battle over the beef checkoff looming, Davis says there's no doubt NCBA will stand behind the current system.
“But if it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court and if we win the challenge, we'll be left with the status quo,” he says. “It's time we take a fresh look at it and determine if that's all we want, or look at improving the whole checkoff system.”
He points out that it's not in NCBA's power to call for a vote on the checkoff.
“But if we see opportunity for improvement and we can get consensus among our producers, then maybe we can do something to make it work better for everyone,” Davis says. “It's policy that's come through our committees, board of directors and membership — driven by the grass roots — that directs our decisions about the checkoff. This way we can see where the checkoff can be improved and determine if a referendum is warranted.”
Davis says there's no question NCBA represents the best interests of the cattle industry in total. But, he adds, “There are a lot of people out there who aren't NCBA members but who I wish were part of our policy-setting process so they could help us move this industry forward.”
He recognizes there will always be people who don't agree with NCBA's position on certain issues, but he believes they and NCBA members can still work together on issues in which they do agree.
“We have a lot of opportunity in front of us as an industry,” says Davis. “It's the people who can't see beyond their present situation, though, who have the ability to stand in the way of progress,” Davis emphasizes. “But when decisions are made without a lot of foresight and discussion, you get the unintended consequences that end up eating you alive.”
In the end, a steady hand and a calculated approach based on facts and credible information is the key to keeping a steady foundation for cattlemen across the country. That's where a cool hand like Davis becomes important.
“Cutting across all issues, the facts are our friends,” says Davis. “Trouble is, sometimes they don't tell us exactly what we want to hear.”
He says it's the responsibility of NCBA's leadership to ensure the facts are in front of members and available to everyone in the cattle industry. Only then can the proper decisions on policy and program implementation can be made.
“I have great faith in our membership and in our process,” Davis says.
Hawaii, Idaho? — Yeah Right!
In 1863, Owyhee became the first county created by the newly formed Idaho Territorial Legislature. For Idahoans, the name Owyhee, an early spelling for the word Hawaii, dates back to the days of early fur trappers.
In 1819, three Hawaiians were part of an expedition Donald McKenzie sent to trap beaver in a stream that emptied into the Snake River. When they failed to return, McKenzie investigated and found one man murdered in camp and no sign of the others. The stream was named Owyhee in their honor.
Used by emigrants for more than 30 years, the Oregon Trail split through the Owyhee region. Known as the “dry route,” the Owyhee Road provided a shorter means to Oregon, but it proved much harder to traverse than the main trail.
The first large cattle drive into Idaho came into Owyhee County's Bruneau Valley in the fall of 1869. It took almost a year for several Owyhee County men to bring 1,400 Texas cattle up from the Brazos River.
These Durham cattle, along with a few Texas Longhorns, formed the nucleus of the county's beef industry. At one time, 100,000 head roamed the Owyhee hills, a mild, semi-arid climate where rainfall varies from 4 to 18 in./year.