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Fix If Broke

BILLINGS, MT | Congress is now working on the 2023 Farm Bill. Back two decades ago, during the drafting of the 2002 Farm Bill, we had two provisions in the Senate version of the Farm Bill that we had fought long and hard for – mandatory country of origin labeling or MCOOL and a ban on packer ownership of livestock.

These were our two triage solutions to a shrinking cattle industry – shrinking in terms of fewer and fewer cattle farmers and ranchers, fewer and fewer cattle, fewer and fewer independent feedlots, fewer and fewer local auction barns, and fewer and fewer beef packing plants.

The House version of the 2002 Farm Bill did not contain either MCOOL or the ban on packer ownership of livestock. And so, the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill went to a conference committee.

The battle in the conference committee was intense and lasted way into the night and early morning. Late at night it seemed the House and Senate leaders had struck a bargain: The Senate could choose just one: either MCOOL or packer ban, and the one that wasn’t chosen would be the subject of a study and then brought up again in the next Farm Bill.

It was about midnight, while sitting in the nation’s Capital, when the staff of the Senate leadership came into the room and asked me which of the two reforms R-CALF USA would choose to be included in the 2002 Farm Bill.

I said the U.S. cattle industry needed both. And I told the staffer he should go back and tell his boss to fight harder because both provisions were needed to reverse the downward trajectory of the U.S. cattle industry.

The Senate staffer was angry with me and left the room.

Within the hour he returned and said the 2002 Farm Bill would include MCOOL, but the ban on packer ownership would be the subject of a multi-million-dollar study to see if it was needed and Congress could take it up during the next Farm Bill. Of course, subjecting the ban on packer ownership of livestock to a study effectively killed it and it never came up again.

I thanked the staffer for winning MCOOL.

So why did it come down to that – where Congress would only agree to one of the two measures needed to reverse the decline of the U.S. cattle industry?

The answer is because the powerful beef packing lobby persistently told Congress that nothing was wrong with the cattle industry – they said the markets were working just fine. The beef packing lobby told Congress not to put any restrictions on the way cattle producers marketed their cattle or the way packers purchased their cattle. In short, they said the beef industry did not want the government involved in their business.

So, the score was one-to-one. We won MCOOL and the beef packing lobby killed the packer ban.

Jump ahead to today. In the 2023 Farm Bill we’re fighting to reinstate MCOOL for beef; to force packers to compete in the cash market, to reform the beef checkoff program (whose main contractors helped to repeal MCOOL for beef back in 2015); we’re also fighting to end packer ownership of livestock and put an end to the unpriced formula contracts that packers use to control livestock. So in two decades, our triage list has grown.

But our adversaries, the powerful beef packing lobby, are hard at it telling Congress the same things they told them in 2002. They’re again telling Congress that nothing is wrong with the cattle industry – that today’s higher cattle prices, which are the direct result of a severe economic shock which was the drought that caused cattle supplies to shrink to historically low levels, proves the markets are working fine.

They’re telling Congress not to put any restrictions on the way that cattle producers market their cattle or the way that packers purchase their cattle. In short, they say the beef industry did not want the government involved in their business, except of course when it comes to the beef checkoff program – they want to keep that massive subsidy, but who’s paying attention to that contradiction anyhow?

So it comes down to this: The beef lobby says the market isn’t broken, and if it isn’t broke Congress should not try to fix it.

But we’re saying the opposite, we’re saying the market is completely broken, and if Congress doesn’t act our U.S. cattle industry will continue to contract at an accelerated pace and will soon look more like the shrunken, corporate controlled poultry, hog, and sheep industries.

So who’s right? Well, compared to just two decades ago, we have tens of thousands fewer cattle farmers and ranchers, over a million fewer cows in our herd, tens of thousands fewer independent cattle feedlots, local auction barns are closing around the country, and just four big packers control 85% of our fed cattle market.

The facts show our cattle industry is broken. And we say fix it. What do you think? And what are you telling your members of Congress?


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R-CALF USA’s weekly commentary educates and informs both consumers and producers about timely issues important to the U.S. cattle and sheep industries and rural America.

Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) is the largest producer-only trade association in the United States. It is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle and sheep industries. Visit www.r-calfusa.com or call 406-252-2516 for more information.

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