Recent events unfolding in the beef industry are playing out like a bad soap opera, but bad blood amongst organizations is decades’ old.

Amanda Radke

October 8, 2019

11 Min Read

In recent weeks, some disturbing events have been occurring in our nation’s beef industry that I feel I need to comment on. I had debated on leaving this discussion alone entirely because it is a lot to unpack, but the requests continue to come in, and I feel ignoring it would do a disservice to my readers.

So I’ll preface this blog post to say, I know writing about this topic won’t make me any friends. In fact, I’m confident that even the briefest comments I plan to make today will only incite hate mail.

However, in order to be truly transparent and to welcome dialogue in this BEEF community, I will write on the topic of #faircattlemarkets and the resulting drama that continues to unfold like a bad soap opera.

Now before you make any assumptions about who I am or where my loyalties lie, you need to know that I’m not a member of any of the cattlemen’s organizations I’m about to mention. This was a decision I made early on in my journalism career. I never wanted to be tied to any one party or association because I feel staying “neutral” allows me to look at every situation with a clear conscience and open eyes.

Also, I know people love to accuse BEEF Magazine of being in the pocket of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the packer. And although I’m not sure our publication has ever come out to address these falsehoods, I speak for the entire editorial team when I say we write and report as accurately as we an on all beef industry topics, and there is no sway or influence from outside parties when we do so.

Related:OCM, HSUS Partnership Makes For Strange Bedfellows

With all those caveats out of the way, let’s get down to the business at hand. What is really going on in the beef industry today, and who can the independent cattleman actually trust?

Earlier this fall, a fire at a packing plant in Holcomb, Kans., and the resulting crash in the cattle markets, ignited and refueled ongoing rhetoric about packer market manipulation and monopolies in the cattle business hurting feeders, stockers and cow-calf producers.

To my understanding, an investigation is currently underway, and at this point, all conclusions are inherently speculative.

Now that’s not to say the cattle markets are in the dumps. They are, and they have been, and it’s tough. I understand the emotion and the outrage and the confusion, but I also believe in looking at the straight facts. Also, I’m weary of any demands that we artificially manipulate the cattle markets to our favor through government interventions. This only serves to superficially help in the short-term and lead to an inevitable crash in the long-term.

Related:HSUS targets beef checkoff; NCBA vows to take stand

But I’m no economist; remember, I’m just a cattle producer like all of you, and I’m doing my best to read everything and figure things out for myself.

So back to the series of events unfolding…

Last week, the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) hosted a rally and meeting called, “Stop the Stealin’” in Omaha, Neb. The event was open to the public and was sponsored by OCM, R-CALF USA, Family Farm Action, Farm Aid, National Family Farm Coalition, American Grassfed Association, Open Markets Institute, National Dairy Producers Organization, Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska Women Involved in Farm Economics, Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, Nebraska Grange, Alabama Contract Poultry Growers Association, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Illinois Farmers Union, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowa Citizens Action Network, Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture, Kansas Cattlemen’s Association, South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, Colorado Independent Cattlemen Association, California Dairy Campaign, and California Farmers Union.

Although I wasn’t at the rally, I did follow the tweets and tried to understand where these folks are coming from. I think right now, OCM and R-CALF understand the emotional outrage of rural America, and while I’m uncertain of what their motivations are or what’s in their hearts, right now, individual cattlemen and women are desperate for resolutions for the challenges they face.

Because let’s be real — the last couple years in the cattle business have been tough with a capital T! We’ve had bad markets, increasing capital risk, rising debt loads and incredibly damaging weather conditions that have made it difficult to survive.

Yet, the reality is, the average beef producer in the United States today has less than 40 head of mama cows, and the economics have shown us for years that you need anywhere from 200-400 head to be profitable in this business.

This isn’t a new development that the small mom and pop ranches who used to make a living on a dozen cows, sows and chickens are over. Yet, it’s our generation who is finally realizing that it’s not easy to make it on 100 head of commercial cows, without any off-farm income to subsidize the business. It’s a hard pill to swallow, no doubt, but again, is falsely manipulating the market in our favor for the short-term the answer?

I think not.

Anyway, at this rally, OCM and others asked President Donald Trump and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to take six actions that would “save the U.S. cattle market.”

Click here to read OCM’s proposed actions, which include buying American, draining the swamp of monopoly power, restoring the enforcement power of the Packers and Stockyards Act and more.

OCM said, “Taking these six actions today will stabilize and move the market in the right direction for cattle producers and it would do so immediately without having to wait for an act of Congress. USDA Secretary Perdue and the Trump Administration have the power to take these six actions. Let’s not let them off the hook; let’s raise a little hell!”

Now it’s fair and reasonable that folks might have differing views on what’s best for the beef industry moving forward. Proponents of mandatory COOL also tend to vehemently oppose mandatory electronic identification, and visa versa. While one is a marketing tool and the other is an animal disease traceability tool, at the core, they both track and monitor U.S. beef animals, just for different reasons. And that’s just one example.

So the soap opera really heats up with the mudslinging between organizations. R-CALF and OCM have long beat up on NCBA for abusing Beef Checkoff funds, granting itself funds to use, using the checkoff dollar for lobbying and acting like Al Capone in their dealings.

My one wish is that the Cattlemen’s Beef Board would speak out louder and stronger to clarify some of these huge falsehoods and exaggerations, although it’s important to note the CBB has always operated with great transparency. Anyone can go to checkoff meetings and learn how their dollars are being spent, but how many really take the time to do so?

However, I do think it would help producers to understand more about where their checkoff dollar goes; however, I come from a state with a large anti-checkoff presence, and I know it must be a huge, exhausting task to try to correct misinformation while also focusing on their real job of beef promotion, education and research.

Some folks in these circles have also accused NCBA of getting in bed with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). To be clear, NCBA has a seat at the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, where WWF is also a member.

There are differences in opinion whether it’s better to be at the table for fear of being on the menu, or if it would be better to refuse to work with these environmental organizations altogether. Others question whether this is a larger scheme to take away our liberties and control the populations through the food supply. That’s up to you to decide how you feel, but I will say, I’m glad beef is represented at these “sustainability” meetings. Can you imagine if the cowboy didn’t have a voice at this table? It’s a scary thought indeed.

Now on the flip side, NCBA has mostly taken the high road as R-CALF has beat this drum, but in a recent statement, Ethan Lane, NCBA vice president of government affairs, said:

“It’s no secret that our industry is divided at the moment. I’ll be the first to stand up and say that a healthy debate about the future of our industry is appropriate as we see tremendous advances in technology, production practices, conservation, quality, and markets. However, these discussions need to be amongst those who love, work, and make their living in this industry. Regardless of our positions, we must stand together against the onslaught of detractors and dividers that do not care about our internal struggles. These outside forces want to end animal agriculture – full stop. Chief among them HSUS, and anyone who watched the rally witnessed that point illustrated in high definition.”

Read Lane’s full statement here.

Moreover, at the end of September, newly appointed NCBA CEO Colin Woodall, released a statement titled, “Smear campaigns.” Here is an excerpt:

“Discrediting the Beef Checkoff and the work being done by contracting organizations allows OCM, HSUS and their bedfellows at R-CALF to build their own membership ranks. These organizations also depend on members, and they’re loudest when conditions are at their worst. By accepting the help of activists (OCM has widely acknowledged their close ties with HSUS and it’s well known that R-CALF is working closely with attorneys at Public Justice, a group that works closely with PETA and organizations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund to attack and divide the beef industry) these groups are able to capitalize on the unrest in our industry and divide beef producers. Ultimately, twin campaigns by OCM/HSUS and R-CALF will tear the industry apart and cause irreparable harm unless producers speak up.

Read Woodall’s complete statement here.

For the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), an organization that has mostly kept out of the fray between R-CALF and NCBA, their focus has been on keeping the momentum rolling on discussions of #faircattlemarkets following the recent hearing where producers were able to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

In a statement, just released on Oct. 7, USCA Vice President Brooke Miller, said:

“No one in our industry embraces excessive government regulation, but referees are needed on the field. Let’s make sure government oversight officials have current and accurate rule books to work from. Capitalism and free markets are the strength of this country, but this isn’t the first time that we’ve addressed monopolies and anti-trust problems and we no doubt will have to do so again in the future.

“It’s important to note, no matter what side of the debate you are on, there is no value in claiming bias, special interest ties, or innuendos and character attacks on the opposition. When ranchers and cattle feeders read the day’s news and reports, there needs to be a positive dialogue. We ought not squander the opportunity.”

Read Miller’s full statement here.

Okay, so I know this blog post has gotten incredibly long. Like I mentioned at the beginning, there is a lot to unpack here. Even as I wrap this up, I know there is much I’ve left unsaid and ground I haven’t covered. I almost cringe to click “publish” on this one because I know the heat I will feel after I post this.

But don’t shoot the messenger here, folks. I’m simply trying to record the events as they unfold. And while I’ve leave it up to you to make up your own mind on who to trust and who best serves as your voice in Washington, D.C., I’ll conclude with this advice:

Don’t let emotions dictate your decisions. Don’t let persuasive speeches make you lose sight of your goals in the cattle business. No man or association can be your savior, and it’s critical that we do our homework before paying dues to any organization.

Once you’ve done your research and tried to see all sides of the discussion (not just what reaffirms your own personal beliefs), make a wise, clear and education decision on who, what and why you support what you do.

And most importantly, really evaluate your heart and the hearts of those who claim to serve you. Are they doing your business justice? Are they representing you or are they serving themselves?

We need not just a few leaders with big platforms to speak on our behalves. And we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand and not engage at all. Remember sometimes inaction is almost as bad as the wrong action. 

Individual ranchers, stockers and feeders must be part of these conversations to ensure our voices are being heard. When is the last time you wrote a letter to Congress? When is the last time you responded to a negative article about cattle and climate change?

Who is best sharing nutritional, environmental and ethical information to our general public? And who is simply stirring the pot, slinging mud and making empty promises to drum up new members?

We don’t all have to see the same, but political discourse and polite conversations, not fighting like petulant children, is what this U.S. beef industry needs right now.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, as well.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or Farm Progress.

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