Cattle politics

Jul 2, 2010

The successful, but divisive beef checkoff must live through another tormenting period of time. The program, structure and how it operates are again being challenged by several ag groups. The recent challenge is a product of the governance changes that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) had proposed. Those changes were intended to find more operational efficiencies for NCBA policy and the Federation of State Beef Councils (Federation).

NCBA, along with the Federation and a number of state cattlemen’s associations, created a task force two years ago to develop a more efficient way of conducting the business of NCBA’s policy and checkoff divisions.

The plan had a positive vote from the membership last February and NCBA was scheduled to complete bylaw changes in June which would govern how the new structure would operate. However, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) didn’t appear to like that idea and has asked that the Federation step away from NCBA. The executive committee for the CBB, which is responsible for overseeing the checkoff program, passed a resolution two weeks ago suggesting that the Federation separate from NCBA.

The governance task force was very careful to address all concerns of industry stakeholders and was making adjustments and concessions up until their last meeting two weeks ago. That meeting included USDA officials, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (US- CA), American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), National Farmers Union, and the National Milk Producer’s Federation. CBB, USCA, LMA and AFBF said that separation of NCBA and the Federation would be the only result they would accept despite the fact that NCBA has never been formally accused of any breach of the firewall between policy and checkoff divisions and has successfully passed audits of that separation for the past 14 years.

The CBB executive committee’s vote to support a separation between NCBA and the Federation has now prompted NCBA to suspend their governance plans until the conjecture can catch up with the truth about the changes. It appears that LMA and USCA, which I will attach to the R-CALF crowd, have never healed from the fight over the merger between the National Cattlemen’s Association and the Federation 14 years ago which, at the time, was a battle royale.

This current situation over the checkoff has a bad smell around it. It stinks of politics, the same old cattle politics. Perhaps the checkoff’s greatest success has been dividing cattlemen and destroying any unity the industry had. This entire episode has been conjured up by a handful of NCBA opponents. The checkoff is being used as a stick that the antis can beat NCBA with.

In the big picture, the checkoff is small potatoes, and arguing over perceived compliance and policy issues is an absolute waste of time. In today’s political climate, we need to be more focused on the real issues, like heavy regulation and an unfriendly business environment.

There is a long list of political priorities the industry needs to be concerned about. That’s why it’s difficult for me to understand what on earth CBB is thinking and why USDA and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are even engaged in this issue.

I can understand USCA and LMA’s positions, because they have always challenged NCBA and their positions. I’m convinced that AFBF doesn’t want to create a problem for the beef checkoff and has no specific policy about how the beef checkoff is operated. I do believe that there are a few rogue representatives from these groups who have a different agenda than their respective associations though.

The new governance proposal is not terribly different from the old structure. NCBA wanted to add a board of directors that could make decisions quickly. They wanted to reduce the size of their existing governing bodies, but that seemed to backfire. They also proposed a House of Delegates comprised of 350 seats, which I’m certain was about collecting more money from people who wish to participate in the decision-making process. At the end of the day, this thing is about money, participation and better production.

The governance task force knew they were going to open a can of worms with this process. But I don’t think they expected to encounter a hornet’s nest. My fear is that the secretary of agriculture will get tired of the bickering and call for a referendum, which could be dangerous territory. — PETE CROW