March 28, 2005
"BOVINE MARCH MADNESS"
Lincoln Journal Star "Local View". 3-28-05 (et al)
Written by Al Davis, Hyannis
David J Wright, Neligh
FOR: Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska
Late in the game, the self-proclaimed #1 seed struggles to stay alive.
The Cinderella team controls the ball. An upset appears imminent. Frustration
builds on the side of the #1 seed as Cinderella passes the ball, looking
for a game-winning shot. Desperate times call for desperate measures,
and an intentional foul by the #1 seed throws the game into doubt. The
gamblers are nervous---theres a lot of money on the table if an
March madness, yes, but not basketball. Its March madness on
Americas ranches, as the calving season begins. The Cinderella
team has its hands full managing the enormous spring workload. But there
is more to ranching today than just calving. A war is being waged between
factions with differing ideas about the future of the beef industry.
The uneasy alliance between packers, feeders, and producers is in ruin.
The producers share of every beef dollar generated has fallen
steadily over the past decade. Meanwhile, three packers now control
80% of the beef slaughtered in the United States. With the passage of
NAFTA, packers have been able to control cattle prices by buying abroad,
and there has been a resulting dearth of profitability for the American
rancher. Nebraskas heavily cow-dependent counties are among the
nations poorest. But producers regained some leverage when BSE
broke out in Canada and we stopped importing their cattle. Since then,
US producers have seen a period of sustained profitability, while profits
lag in the packing industry. The packers have put intense pressure on
the administration to reopen the border and return to more normal
Since the Canadian border closed in 2003, the governments discussion
about re-opening it has centered on sound science. But what
sound science is remains a vague, murky, and changing line.
Protocols developed by international bodies and adopted by our government
in 1989 that were implemented to protect the health of the American
consumer are being dispensed with by the Bush Administration to appease
the packing industry. Despite the fact that Canada has had two infected
cows discovered in the past 90 days, the Bush administration insists
that the border be opened. Bush has even threatened to veto a Resolution
of Disapproval (essentially, a vote of no confidence in the USDA)
if the House and Senate pass ithis first veto ever. Our government
insists that we institute special rules for Canadian beef; rules which,
if enacted, could leave the US with the lowest meat import safety standards
in the developed world.
A native-born case of BSE has never occurred in the United States.
Canada has had four cases of BSE. The US beef industry paid a steep
price for the single Canadian cow exported to the US with the disease.
Because if it, our largest export markets were lost. These losses were
estimated at $175 per head.
This week, Secretary Johanns expressed frustration over the hypothetical
loss of meat packing jobs to Canada if the border is not opened. Johanns
stated, "Can anyone doubt that Canada is not going to grow their
[packing] industry? This is a classic example of outsourcing jobs into
Canada. Secretary Johanns, our former governor, doesnt seem
to worry about the jobs held by hardworking ranch families in Nebraska.
Arent their jobs also being outsourced by low profitability? Johanns
has stated that trade is like an eight-lane superhighway. So, if trade
goes both ways, why must the American rancher accept low returns, while
the packing industry does not? Apparently those in positions of power
have relegated the rancher to the slow lane.
To further muddy the waters, the National Cattlemans Beef Association
argues that the US must reopen its borders with Canada to pressure Japan
into reopening its border with the US. The two borders are not linked,
and the concept makes little sense. Relaxing standards with Canada wont
build confidence in our product in Japan. Why would Japan want to trade
with a nation which ignores its own protocols in dealing with BSE-infected
herds in other countries?
Senator Chuck Hagel recently stated that he supported the re-opening
of the Canadian border again invoking the sound science
mantra. Hagels statement indicated we should not cater to special
interests by keeping the border closed. These special interests
are his own constituents-- the American cattle producer and the American
beef consumer---the very special interests he was elected to cater
Theres no question who the underdogs are in this game. Theyre
Americas cattle producers. These arent politically-connected
individuals--theyre hardworking families focused on day-to-day
responsibilities. Study the game statistics yourself before you let
someone else make up your mind for you. Ignore the rhetoric but study
the facts. If our elected officials and our American consumers can filter
the truth from the roar of the crowd, the Cinderella team might just
pull off a victory. It will be a victory for small operators, for the
consumer, and ultimately for the industry itself.