Mont. - Representatives of both R-CALF USA and the Montana Cattlemen's Association (MCA) had the opportunity to discuss industry issues with Bruce Knight, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) newly appointed Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, during his recent travels around the Big Sky State. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., coordinated the visit. Pat Goggins, owner of the Public Auction Yards here (PAYS), hosted the meeting.
Knight's purview includes oversight of three USDA agencies, all of which are essential to the success of the domestic live cattle industry: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA); and, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).
Knight said he's been in this new role for only a couple of months and there are a wide range of issues to implement.
"I've been getting out in the country to visit with folks to find out what folks' priorities are, what they think are problems and concerns, what I need to fix," Knight said. "That's the only way I can learn and find out the way I need to address some of these issues."
One issue that is top-of-mind for cattle producers is Mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (M-COOL), which became a law with the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, but opponents have successfully delayed its implementation until September 2008. Another top concern is USDA's proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Two other items woven through the conversation included the difficulties young people face as they try to get started in agriculture, and the need to allow interstate shipment of beef to expand opportunities for smaller packers.
"With COOL, I have a statutory obligation to move it forward and I will," said Knight. "While the Administration is opposed to Mandatory COOL, it is the law, and I will implement the law in the timeframes that are there. I can't move it earlier. It's not a point of discretion for me."
R-CALF USA Co-Founder and Past President Leo McDonnell urged Knight to consider the recommendations made in 2003 by the Government Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for implementing Mandatory COOL.
"We've agreed to take a hard look at the costs, we've started some of the preliminary training, and we're looking at the fish and shellfish experience to see what's working there so that we can move COOL forward," Knight said. "Obviously, it's supposed to be up and operational at the end of September 2008, so I'll do all the proper things to be able to flip a switch when the time comes."
"Without Mandatory COOL - a tool that U.S. cattle producers can use to differentiate their products from foreign beef and one that likely will increase the value of U.S. beef - we cannot effectively compete in the global market," said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard. "We've got to position this industry to compete in the future. Our success will be dependent on the environment in which we operate, much of which is dictated by government regulations.
"We must keep this industry profitable, and to do that, there must be some changes in public policy," Bullard continued. "That's why you see R-CALF pushing issues like COOL and interstate meat shipment – because the policies now in place are not leading us to a place where producers will remain profitable (for future generations). We need to take steps now to change that."
R-CALF USA Member Jack McNamee told Knight that as a producer he is subject to considerable governmental involvement that affects his operation, and that it is about time some of these government policies begin helping, not hindering, our industry.
"Not allowing interstate shipment of beef, well that's government in the way," McNamee said. "But Mandatory COOL is a program I can see helping me, and it would help my kids down the road, too."
McDonnell echoed those sentiments.
"Those of us out here in the cattle industry want to maintain our independence," McDonnell said. "We want lots of opportunity. We do not want to be locked into doing business with just two or three packers."
McDonnell cautioned that cattle producers do not want packers to be able to dictate how ranchers produce, as is done in the poultry and hog industries where packers have been known to retaliate against producers who argued for better contracts.
Regarding Animal ID, Knight insisted NAIS is a voluntary program, and the emphasis should be on using common sense to make any NAIS workable.
"There's a misperception out there that it'll become mandatory," he said. "I want it in private hands to ensure the confidentiality of producer data. There are only a couple of things the government needs in the event of a disease problem. I don't believe the government needs to know how many calves I sell each year."
Bullard told Knight that perhaps the most important message R-CALF USA can convey is that the domestic live cattle industry is unique, and that for too long, the interests of producers have been pushed aside. He also asked Knight to remember the industry's importance to the survival of Rural America.
"The production side of agriculture is the foundation of rural communities, and if we don't take steps now to make sure we have a viable future, the rest of the pyramid will topple as well," Bullard said.
Bullard said he appreciates that Under Secretary Knight took the time to visit with grassroots cattle producers and R-CALF USA on these important industry issues, and that the organization looks forward to working with Knight in the future.
R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) is a national, non-profit organization and is dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry. R-CALF USA represents thousands of U.S. cattle producers on both domestic and international trade and marketing issues. Members are located across 47 states and are primarily cow/calf operators, cattle backgrounders, and/or feedlot owners. R-CALF USA has more than 60 affiliate organizations and various main-street businesses are associate members. For more information, visit www.r-calfusa.com or, call 406-252-2516.