Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Wes Ishmael

Author's note: It seems the first part of this adventure plumb rankled the fur of some members of the R-CALF (not R-LAFF) organization. Several of them questioned my heritage, intelligence and industry allegiance. Some even questioned my journalistic integrity and demanded the “facts” be revisited. Remember, while many of us know folks like Hooter and the boys, the tales of their exploits here are fictional, have always been, and have never been depicted otherwise. Consequently, quibbling over “facts” in a fictional work is a little like picking a fight with a ventriloquist's dummy for something It said. Certainly, fiction has a long history of illuminating realities that raw facts sometimes can't; maybe that's what unleashed such a barrage of kindergarten name-calling. Either way, this author also writes plenty of non-fiction articles, as well as the Huntin' Daylight editorial opinion column carried by this publication each month. I've invited the CEO of the R-Calf organization to visit for one of these non-fiction, editorial opinion columns.


Prologue: The Ranchers-Legal Assistance Fund and Foundation (R-LAFF) requested a spot on the monthly agenda of the Rio Rojo County Cattlemen's Association (RRCCA). As chairman of the RRCCA education committee, Hooter agreed to the request. By the end of Part I, Milo Talltale, R-LAFF president and founder had inadvertently come close to electrocuting his assistant—something to do with sweet tea and a laptop computer—and begun engaging Hooter and other RRCCA members in a debate about specific industry issues, shining all kinds of statistics upon the makeshift screen along the way.


“I'm sure you've all heard about captive supplies and the tragic consequences it has had for our industry,” rumbled Talltale, exuding the confidence of a horse-track addict who believes he's on to a sure thing. “In fact, I believe we all earned a victory when the Packers and Stockyards came out recently and admitted that different interpretation of the terms by different reporting agencies mean that captive supplies are larger on an annual basis than previously, reported, about seven percent higher.”

“Yeah,” said Izzy. “I saw that report, but we've known that for a long time. Shoot, some weeks, that's about all that trades around here.”

“Exactly,” shouted Talltale, hammering his fist down on the table once again.

Peetie Womac raised his hand.

“Yes, what is it?” said Talltale impatiently.

“Well sir, whatever the number is, you seem to be implying that captive supplies are inherently a bad thing.”

Talltale's eyes widened in horror as if someone had slapped him across the jowls with a frozen chicken. “Of course, it's a bad thing,” he thundered. “The fewer cattle you have to set the market, the fewer cattle the packer needs in the open market, the lower the price goes!”

Peetie waited for Talltale to finish: “There's sure some folks who view it that way. But that's way too simple. Like any dog, some of these marketing arrangements have fleas on them alright, but I gotta a tell you, as a cow/calf man who retains ownership through the feedlot, I'd a lot rather work with the packer, use the data in my favor, negotiate a base price I think is fair, then be rewarded or discounted based on what the cattle actually do. I'd a lot rather be paid for my cattle rather than for the average of everybody's cattle.”

“But not everyone has that opportunity,” countered Talltale.

“Mister,” said Peetie, “If a guy is feeding with someone who can't get him other marketing options than a live price this day and age, I'd feed them somewhere else. The system ain't perfect, and if you think I'm satisfied with how much money I get for my fed cattle, compared to what the consumer is paying for it in the meat case, you're wrong. But, I don't know all of the economics at play. And, I know with the deal I've got, I'm making more than I could without it.”

“But, think of how much more you could be making if this nation's antitrust laws were put to work for us as producers. The packers have too much power and we have too little,” rasped Talltale. “It's this concentration that's killing us. That's why we're hoping to get this Johnson amendment passed in the farm bill. If we could limit their ownership of cattle before they come to the packinghouse, we could start bringing some levelness back to the playing field.”

“You pass that amendment and all you're going to accomplish is taking a big chunk of the price of calves and fats,” said Peetie to no one in particular.

“How can you believe such a thing?” demanded Talltale.

“For one thing you're going to take substantial calf demand out of the marketplace because of the fact some of the same companies own packinghouses and feedlots. For another, you can make a sound case for it leading to more market volatility, the kind that might make some bankers think twice about opening up the coin purse.” said Peetie. “One thing I do know is that I've never seen legislation of the markets that works. Look at this mandatory price reporting fiasco. Lots of folks were in favor of it in the name of market transparency. Anytime a packer isn't ranting and railing against a new law, you can bet your hat, boot and glasses it's not going to hurt him.”

Suddenly, there was what sounded like an explosion in the parking lot, the bass reverberation shaking the walls. Talltale jumped at the sound.

“That's just Jeremiah,” said Izzy. “I swear, if he doesn't get that pickup fixed, I'm gonna string him up. I heard him come back from the calving pasture at two this morning. Boom!”

The door flew open and Jeremiah Patterson fairly well burst through it. “Sorry, boys. I had one I had to help. Got here as quick as I could. Hope I haven't missed anything.”

“Well,” said Claude Burkhart, “Our guest here was just explaining to us how we need legislation to get a handle on captive supplies, concentration and marketing. He was explaining to us how we've got to level up the playing field.”

Patterson stood in silence. Then he started laughing like a madman, crashing guffaws that seemed to start at his toes and never lost steam until they found throat at the top of his six and half foot frame. Then he realized he was the only one laughing. “You mean, you're serious?” he asked.

“Of course, I'm serious,” said Talltale, turning red.

Jeremiah walked to the front row of chairs, set his hat on a chair and remained standing. “Sir, I'm not the one to talk to about level playing fields and government. We lost our family ranch back in the early 80's. You remember those days. The guys around here that had more equity, the guys that made different decisions than we did, the guys who were luckier than we were, they survived. Is that fair? My point is there is no such thing as a level playing field. But because I'm free to come and go in this business as my checkbook and ingenuity allows, I'm back in the business.”

“Given that experience, I'd think if anyone recognized the need for some kind of control beyond the pasture you would,” said Talltale with a newfound firmness.

“It's just the opposite,” said Jeremiah. “If you go to legislating what a feedyard or packer can do in terms of the marketplace, then what's to stop them from telling me whether or not I can be in the business, or what kind of cows I have to raise or what I have to feed them? One thing I learned when we lost the ranch, none of us have the right to be in this business. We've got to earn it, and if we can't we have to go do something else. You think I enjoy delivering the mail so I can try to build my stake back up?”

“This is entirely different,” said Talltale. “Now, if I may continue.”

Jeremiah shook his head and sat down. The others were leaning on the edge of their chairs.”

“All I'm saying is that there are some laws that would be beneficial to us all and there's no reason for us not to have them. Like country-of-origin labeling for example. Surely you believe the consumers of this country deserve to know whether they're getting product born and raised in this country?”

“That's a whole different question than having legislation behind it,” said Izzy.

“Yeah,” chimed in Peetie, “I've seen some folks promote the notion of a mandatory system that says all beef has to be labeled and for it to be labeled USA the cattle have to be born, raised and processed here. That would be a mistake in my opinion.”

“And just why is that?” wondered Talltale.

“If you make it mandatory, sure seems like you'd have to make national identification mandatory, too, in order to verify all of that. Besides which there's cattle from Hawaii that come to the mainland via Canada. That rule would keep those cattle out. Last I knew Hawaii was still part of the United States.”

Sensing that the crowd was basically opposed to anything he had to say, Talltale aimed to get finished and get gone. “Gentlemen, I appreciate your time and the hour is growing late. I will entertain some questions, though.”

From behind the bar, Jackson spoke for the first time. “Where do you stand on the beef check-off?”

“With all due respect, sir, I meant that I would entertain questions from the members of the association here, the other producers.”

“Uh oh,” said Hooter to Izzy. “Let's go.” They and the other members of the association quickly formed a human wall between Talltale and an enraged Jackson.

“What's going on here?” demanded Talltale.

“Well, you just went and assumed your way into making ol' Jackson here mad,” said Hooter with a chuckle.

“Yeah,” said Claude. “Jackson's a member, too. Runs one of the better cow/calf and stocker operations around.”

“Really? I am sorry, no disrespect intended,” tried Talltale.

“Well, plenty of disrespect taken,” shouted Jackson from behind the crowd. “I've listened to this mom and apple pie diatribe all night. Using half of the facts to make complex issues seem as simple as changing a rule here or a rule there. Every man has a right to an opinion, and my opinion is a lot of the stuff you've been tossing around is not only wrong, but some of the things you say to back up your positions are out and out deception. And, that hurts everybody, no matter what your opinion is.”

Talltale bristled at that and started walking toward the crowd.

Hooter interjected. “Mr. Talltale. It's obvious by now that we pretty well disagree with you on everything. But I think I speak for our association when I say that we can only believe your organization is sincere in its beliefs.”

“And another thing,” shouted Jackson, still being restrained, but tossing a red R-LAFF cap over the heads of his fellow members. “I'm sure you're aware that gimme cap you handed out was made in China.”


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