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35 years without a vote, ranchers need a voice in the Beef Checkoff

By Deanna Nelson Licking for Tri-State Livestock News and The Fence Post

In mid-February of 2020, Ryan Brokaw of Forbes, North Dakota, sold three pot loads of calves. In less than month due to the cattle market crash, a similar group of calves brought 50,000 dollar less. “How the heck do you make up that kind of money?” Brokaw said. “I’m 42 and I have never been able to vote on the check-off. It is supposed to help us but instead is crushing our industry.”

Brokaw feels that beef producers should be given the opportunity to vote on the beef check-off and that the current system is broken and needs fixed. He has been asking producers to sign the R-CALF petition for a referendum on the check-off. “I’ve asked most of my neighbors and friends who run cattle, and I haven’t been told no yet. A lot of people are very receptive and I’ve had good luck with it.”

Faith, South Dakota rancher Sharlyn Escott, has visited a number of sale barns with the petition. “It’s been either one way or the other, yes, I’ll sign or a blunt no and they say that the check-off is a good thing. Some aren’t very well informed and didn’t know about the petition, it is very frustrating, it seems like some ranchers aren’t in tune to what is going on.”

Escott feels that the current beef check-off is not promoting US beef. “Beef is promoted but there is not differentiation between beef. There is a lot of difference in beef that we raise and what is sold in town. We need some positive things to happen, especially for cow-calf producers, we seem to be getting fewer and fewer.”

Escott feels that the check-off isn’t working like it used to. “20 years ago I was in the Cattlewomen, and we cooked beef and had recipes, there just isn’t anything anymore.”

“As a producer I can tell you, everybody in the cattle world on the producer side are hurting. If it wasn’t for the subsidies there would be a lot of folks going under,” said Clay Beck of Mills, Nebraska. “The check-off in the inception was a great thing, until it was infiltrated by folks who don’t have our best interests in mind. It works good as a promotion of beef to the point of promoting foreign beef as well, off of our dollars.”

Beck also brought up that even though cattle producers are forced to pay a dollar a head every time the animal is sold, and the money is collected to be used for beef promotion, the amount of beef consumed per person per year has dropped dramatically. The National Chicken Council reported that in 35 years of the check-off, annual beef consumption has fallen from 79 pounds in 1985, to 58.4 pounds in 2020. “Why is consumption down if they are doing such a good job?” Beck asks. “It’s time that people stand up and fight, there is a huge disconnect between the producers and the consumers and the middle man has made so much money. I don’t have a problem with the check-off but I want it to promote our beef. As a producer I’m not against it, I just want a say in how it is spent. We need everyone to come together, it’s a huge fight and we need folks with skin in the game.”

Jack Nagel a North Dakota producer has gathered over 35 pages of signatures just from taking a few afternoons to drive around and ask producers in his area to sign the petition. “I’ve only been turned down eight times, there seems to be no interest in Emmons County in the beef check-off. I’ve been circulating the petition to give producers a chance to vote on the check-off. I don’t think it is right, until we take the money away from them, we are doomed.”

Nagel mentioned how he has been farming and raising cattle since 1973. “I have never voted on it and I’ve never had a say on where the money goes. Our state check-off doesn’t help us either. We need a check-off but we don’t need it the way it is being run. There is no money in the cattle business, why work 365 days a year for no return?”

“The check-off was to help promote beef and cattle but not a dime is spent on promoting cattle,” said David Wright, Nebraska rancher. “The check-off is the most corrupt money making scheme I’ve ever seen, something that Al Capone would be proud of. It collects tax payer money to lobby against you. 70 percent of the NCBA budget is check-off dollars and 30 percent from members. NCBA has become a mouth piece for the packers.”

“The system is corrupt, if you want to keep supporting your own demise, keep paying your check-off dollars. I can’t stand a bully, it’s what is going on here, more money is going in their pockets at the expense of ranching families and communities,” Wright said.

Everyone agreed that cattle producers desperately need a win and that we need to throw our support behind this petition, to lobby our elected officials on the 50/14 Spot Market Protection Bill and to bring back mandatory country of origin labeling on beef. More information on legislations and a link to the petition can be found on R-CALF website where it can be signed digitally or printed off. All producers regardless of age who have owned, sold or purchased cattle from July 2, 2020 to July 1, 2021 are eligible to sign the petition. In the 35 years of the Beef Check-off, cattle producers have never been given the opportunity vote on the mandatory assessment or to hold the government accountable for the use of the money. The petition needs at least 88,000 signatures (10 percent of producers) but R-CALF has a goal of collecting 150,000 names. Everyone is encouraged to talk to friends and neighbors and help spread the word about the petition.

“Our petition campaign is still rolling, gaining exposure, and gaining momentum.  Just like in the fall when we had passionate producers gathering signatures at sale barns, spring brings new opportunities. There are neighborhood gatherings at brandings. We encourage producers to throw a few extra copies of the petition in their pickup to pass around at brandings.  We also have had good luck at farm & ranch shows and with summer coming that will bring opportunities at rodeos, shows, and fairs. We are not giving up.

Producers are frustrated. Lately it feels like we have seen an increase in Cattlemen’s Beef Board time, money and effort being put in to selling the Checkoff to us cattle producers.  Why aren’t they using that same effort to promote and sell American beef?  We have attacks coming at us from every direction; increased imports of live cattle and beef, animal rights activists, the fake meat industry and yet it feels like we are fighting this war alone, when in truth, we pay in $80 million dollars a year to fund a program that should be our first line of defense.  It just does not make sense!  Where is our Beef Checkoff ’winning’ for us as investors?  For these reasons, there is a very slim signature decline rate.  When we get the petition under the eyes of producers, they almost always sign.” Karina Jones, Nebraska rancher and advocate for the ranching industry.

Branding season is the perfect opportunity for ranchers to collect signatures for the Beef Check-off Referendum. Photo by Deanna Nelson-Licking

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