Close Window & Return to ICON News


Groups split over Canadian cattle

BY ART HOVEY/Lincoln Journal Star - 2-25-05

Separated by one floor at the state capital Wednesday, the fresher-faced Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska and the more leathery looking Nebraska Cattlemen were being careful not to portray themselves as headed for a showdown.

But shared preferences for cowboy hats and tall boots can't blur an important distinction in attitudes toward recent cases of mad cow disease in Canada.

The Independent Cattlemen, founded in early 2005, are firmly opposed to reopening the border to Canadian cattle under 30 months old on March 7. The Nebraska Cattlemen, whose origins go back to the 1980s, are not.

At a noon press conference in the capitol rotunda, Bob Rothwell of Hyannis and the Independent Cattlemen described the federal rule that will admit Canadian cattle next month as flawed.

One floor below, Michael Kelsey of the Nebraska Cattlemen pushed away a lunch plate in the capital cafeteria and stopped short of endorsing an end to a 2003 border ban - but not by much.

"If Secretary Johanns decides that's sound science," Kelsey said of the rule, "we fully support that."

All this matters, on one level, because a stampede of Canadian cattle could throw Nebraska's multi-billion-dollar cattle industry into price turmoil, upset U.S. beef consumers and slow down efforts to get Japan, South Korea and other important customers to restore U.S. imports.

It matters, on another level, because the Nebraska Cattlemen, the state's largest livestock organization, have had no competing organizational voice from beef ranks until now.

But such appears to be the case as the Independent Cattlemen firm up their relationship with R-CALF USA at the national level and the Nebraska Cattlemen stick with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

"I think they've lost part of their membership throughout the Sandhills," said Chris Abbott of Gordon and the Independent Cattlemen, "because of the industrywide membership they think they represent."

That's a reference to what some critics of the NCBA see as its less-than-arms-length relationship with four major meatpackers who dominate the market and, in this case, to meatpackers' clear preferences for bringing in Canadian cattle.

"We don't hate packers," Rothwell said at one point during the Independent Cattlemen press conference. "We wish there were 500 of them."

He and his organizational peers also wish mightily that a federal judge will grant R-CALF's request for an injunction during a March 2 court date, a ruling that would block the March 7 action.

Jess Peterson of R-CALF USA, who also took a turn at the press conference podium Wednesday, described the leadership of that group as "confident that the judge will rule in our favor."

That would put representatives from Johanns' staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a negotiating table with objecting parties.

Kelsey said the Nebraska Cattlemen have gotten more comfortable with the return of Canadian cattle for several reasons. Among them, Johanns changed the rule and blocked boxed beef from older animals. Also, Canada, in his view, is demonstrating a level of vigilance toward mad cow disease that equals what's going on in the United States.

Kelsey dismissed the notion of the Independent Cattlemen as rivals.

"Our rivals, to be honest with you, are PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the Sierra Club and basically people who want to put us out of business."

Reach Art Hovey at 523-4949 or at