From the Field: Experts say cattle producers must unite

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 30, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Local cattle producers got a call to arms Wednesday night at the Natchez Stockyards.

Not literally, but Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, told nearly 100 producers other larger and better-funded segments of the beef industry had been taking advantage of them for years.

&8220;We can sit silent and let it happen or we can defend the values of our industry,&8221; he said.

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The shrinking of the size of the national herd and greater demand have led to increases in the retail price of beef and hefty profits for the meatpacking, processing and retailing segments of the industry. In theory, Bullard said, that should be good for the local producers, too.

&8220;But somebody forgot to pass the profits along to the producers,&8221; Bullard said.

&8220;That&8217;s why R-CALF exists, to help producers compete for their money.&8221;

The reputation of U.S. beef is second to none, Bullard said, and taking advantage of that is one of the group&8217;s main goals, and it is fighting to enact country of origin labeling on all beef sold in the country. Similar measures for fish and seafood will take effect in April and R-CALF is pressing to have C.O.O.L. for beef, which was ordered in the 2002 Farm Bill, implemented right away.

&8220;We have consumer support on this,&8221; Bullard said. &8220;It&8217;s been passed by Congress, signed and now it needs to be implemented.&8221;

To help press its case in Washington, R-CALF has enlisted the services of former Undersecretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Bill Hawks.

A native of Mississippi and former state senator and lieutenant governor, Hawks heads AgWorks Solutions, a consulting firm in Washington.

He told the local producers &8212; who maintain close to 10,000 head in Adams County and Concordia Parish &8212; the mood in Washington going into the drafting of the 2007 Farm Bill is &8220;not pretty&8221; and called for the entire agricultural community to speak with one voice.

&8220;Our family is getting smaller, and as a family we have to work together,&8221; he said.

And while producing cattle in Montana is different from producing cattle in Mississippi, Hawks said they have to stick together.

&8220;What we have to do as cattle producers and ranchers is unite, that&8217;s how you get things done.&8221;

R-CALF claims a membership 18,000 strong and has made its presence felt on Capitol Hill.

It sought, and received, a temporary injunction to keep the Canadian border closed to cattle imports after a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, was found in December.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had OK&8217;d a March 7 reopening of the border, but R-CALF&8217;s suit temporarily has halted that.

And while that has packers, processors and retailers, not to mention Canadian cattlemen, upset, it&8217;s not all acrimony between R-CALF and the other segments of the beef industry.

The group also is going to bat for processing giant Creekstone Farms Premium Beef in its lawsuit against the USDA.

Creekstone is seeking to voluntarily test all of its cattle for BSE in an effort to regain entry into the lucrative Japanese market.

In December of 2003, a cow in Washington state &8212; imported from Canada &8212; tested positive for BSE.

Japan, which has more than 20 cases of its own on record, has banned U.S. beef imports for all but a brief period since then.

There have been two other reported cases of BSE in the U.S., in Alabama and Texas.

Both cows were older than the feed ban the U.S. implemented in 1997.

Other issues facing local producers are unfair international trade agreements and updating the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 to balance the domestic playing field.