Jan 2, 2009

Positive new year


This is generally when we do the top 10 stories of the past year. I thought we might try and change that and look at what could be the top issues for the next year. It’s clear that change is in the wind and I would expect the wind to start blowing Jan. 20 when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in. Then we’ll see just how green he really is. In our online poll at, we found that 53 people approved of Tom Vilsack as secretary of Agriculture, 43 folks said he wouldn’t be good, and 39 said they would wait and see. The top issue that the beef industry will have to focus on is trade. Congress has been holding up the free trade deals with Columbia and South Korea and Obama’s crew says they want to make some changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The cattle industry has already strained trade relations with Mexico and Canada by pushing Country of Origin Labeling through the Farm Bill. Now, folks are finding it to be a bigger headache than they thought. Both Canada and Mexico have filed complaints with the World Trade Organization (WTO). WTO is supposed to resolve trade disputes. They may solve some, but they take an awful long time and they aren’t very good at enforcing their rulings. Also, Mexico briefly delisted most of the U.S. packing plants. Many seem to think it was a protest gesture.

I would expect that we’ll start to see more activity at the Environmental Protection Agency as they enforce Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CA- FOs) may also go through another round of attacks.

The Obama administration has already made noise about more regulations for CAFOs. Biofuels created havoc for the meat industry in 2008 after feed costs nearly doubled because of the biofuel mandate laid out by Congress. Vilsack is a big supporter of biofuel and it apparently fits with the green ideals of the new administration.

The Renewable Fuels Association is already at work trying to expand the market for ethanol, asking for low interest loan guarantees and asking the feds to require any auto maker that takes federal loans be required to build cars that can run on any ethanol blend up to E85. It appears that meat producers will be forced to compete for feedstuffs in an uneven market. I don’t think Congress got the message from meat producers that they only want to compete for corn on a level playing field, without subsidies for biofuel. Perhaps Congress will have their ears open and their minds working this year. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) came away from the last election with some big wins. It looks like they will try and float their agenda through the national scene in a bigger way. It still dumbfounds me that California voters actually passed a constitutional amendment to ban certain types of animal management. But HSUS and their state groups are here to stay and it will take a constant effort from the industry to keep them in check.

Horse slaughter issues are a hot potato. This is one area in particular where HSUS has made some impact on the national level. Aside from their help in shutting down horse processing plants, they continue to work on a measure which would prevent transportation of horses for slaughter in Canada and Mexico.

Industry leadership will be another issue for cattle producers to deal with in the year ahead. There are essentially three separate national cattlemen’s associations trying to represent beef producers on a variety of issues. A little consensus building would go a long way in solidifying beef producers’ message to the new administration.

Both R-CALF and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association seem to have the ear of Democrats in Washington D.C., while the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has lost ground due to a lack of organization.

This could well be a year of pain for NCBA and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. When we look back at the end of next year, I believe the markets and the economy as a whole will be stronger than they are now. Better times are ahead for the industry and I think we are probably at a turning point.

These are just a few of the issues I feel the industry should be working on. We all need to do our homework in order to make the year ahead one worth remembering. Happy New Year! — PETE CROW