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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

Plainview Workers’ "Emancipation"

Feb 20, 2013


This is a story I wish I had written. It is a story I want Michael Pollan and all his technophobic beef-hating fans to read. It is about the people who were—let me burrow into the foodies’ mindset here for a moment—"emancipated" from their jobs when Cargill closed its plant in Plainview, Texas.

It’s about the small businesses that are at risk—"doomed" would be a better word, I suppose—because of the closing.

Read it.  http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2013/02/19/a-plant-closes-on-the-plains-and-a-community-ponders-its-future/

Then get back to me on how badly we need to curtail beef production in this country.


A Slow Start for Animal ID

Jan 14, 2013

Yawn. Did you see a lot of news coverage about USDA’s new animal disease traceability program last month and you wonder what it means to you?

Not much, I’m afraid. Not in this form, anyhow. It applies only to cattle moving across state lines and then only to cattle over 18 months or traveling to shows, exhibitions, rodeos or recreational events. Cattle moving straight to slaughter—cull cows and bulls , for instance—are exempt, as well.

So, nearly as I can tell, most of the people impacted with be those who haul cattle to shows or sell mature cows and bulls to people from other states So, mostly purebred breeders, I guess. If you’re like me and sometimes haul cull cows--or calves, for that matter--to an out-of-state sale barn, it seems to have no effect.

Not that there’s anything to complying, anyhow. A bangs tag or brand will do as well as an electronic ID tag, thank you.

Which is to say, we are working our way into a national identification program very slowly and, I daresay, not very surely.

It makes me impatient. This deal will be of some help in tracing things like brucellosis, trich and BSE—the stuff they find in old cows. But those are molehill problems alongside the mountainous threat of foot and mouth disease. where these rules  won’t be much help at all. FMD’s most likely route to industry ruin would  be in the millions of feeder cattle shipped around the country.

I can understand where USDA is coming from. Their efforts at building a useful program in 2009 ran into a super storm of whining from producers. I suppose I shouldn’t blame USDA—or NCBA, for that matter—for not standing up to the rowdies and pushing ahead with the sort of ID program that will protect us against disease outbreak AND make it easier to get our beef into foreign markets.

It’s obvious the plan is to move into it a bit at a time. USDA says this will give them a chance to feel feel their way into the program—identify glitches, and such. It also will let the "reluctants" see that it isn’t that hard or expensive. So then, you bring the feeder cattle and calves in later. They probably know what they’re doing. And we’ll probably get away with it.

We’ve been a long time without an FMD outbreak.

And, all they’ve done is set up a minimal set of rules for interstate shipment, states can go further for in-state movement. In Texas, for instance, we have to provide ID on any animal marketed. Other states are even more stringent.

So for now, the smart thing is to check with your state animal health authority before you ship cattle. Your veterinarian will also know what it takes to get the interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates needed to comply with the federal law, as well as any local requirements.

Meanwhile, I’ll be patient. And hope we don’t get a nasty surprise while we’re easing into this "21st Century" 15 or 20 years too late.


It’s Time to Ask: What If It Never Rains?

Jan 10, 2013

In Elmer Kelton’s iconic novel The Time It Never Rained, we read: "Moving across a bare, ashen pasture and remembering how green it used to be, Charlie found himself almost wondering if it was worth the fight. Who knew how long it might be until it rained again?"

Nobody has captured the ethos of drought as well as Kelton did in his story about rancher Charlie Flagg’s battle against the West Texas drought of the ’50s. Not many people remember how bad that drought was. I remember because my dad had chosen 1951 to return to farming, hocking everything he’d built and saved since the Dust Bowl years. We kids wore flour-sack shirts and got underwear and socks for Christmas.

My mom had to report every egg she sold to the Federal Housing Administration. And she was, uncharacteristically, short of temper some days.

During the 1930s—the years of the Dust Bowl, so well documented in Ken Burns’ recent PBS special— average rainfall in Amarillo was more than 17". From 1952 through 1956, it averaged little more than 12". Even with those 12", it was an epic drought. But in 2011, Amarillo received just 7.01". As of this writing, it looks like the city will come in under 12" in 2012. And, as Kelton would say, who knows when it will rain again?

Hard decisions. Prompted by Derrell Peel’s recent series "Can We Rebuild the Beef Cowherd?" I sat down to write this column about the prospects for a recovery. Peel recognizes this as a historic drought. I wonder how it will affect beef supplies and—as people react to record prices—demand.

I can keep my cows through the winter, thanks to $200 hay and pasture leased from a neighbor who keeps it for hunting. But I’m hauling my calves to town tomorrow, three or four months too early. Their wheat pasture is gone. I can’t get them to pencil at a feedyard, given corn prices. And I had a depressing conversation with a friend about where we might be able to fi nd green pastures to preserve seedstock.

I haven’t had as much rain in the last two years as Amarillo has. When I walk my pastures, I wonder how much of that grass is dead forever. I wonder how long it will take to come back after the rains come. I lie awake at night, wondering if I should hope for rain that isn’t in the long-term forecast or haul my cows to town before everyone else does.

I can’t imagine how my parents made it through the ’50s. Or how some of my neighbors, who have more at stake than me, cope. To have hundreds of cows—your whole life’s work, in many cases— teetering? Knowing that if you can just make it until the rains come, it promises to be better than ever, but that if you do sell, you may never get started again. Thousands have already decided.

If the rains don’t come, more will decide this year. Peel estimates the U.S. herd will be down as much as half a million this year. Beef prices, as well as calf and cow prices, will reach all-time highs.

It will be great for those who ride it out. But most of us will be like Charlie Flagg, I fear—wondering if it’s worth the fight, and how long it might be until it rains again.

Approaching the Death Tax Cliff

Dec 05, 2012

The Farm Journal/Pioneer Legacy progam was in Amarillo this week. It was my first chance to sit through one of the sessions, and the first such session since the election.

I walked away with two distinct impressions.

First, our Washington leadership MUST do something about estate taxes. What we have now is bad enough. Returning to the pre-Bush plan would decimate American agriculture. We’ll go from 34% of everything over $5 million to 55% of everything over $1 million.

That’s drastic stuff. Say you have a $6 million estate—which isn’t exactly a big operation with today’s inflated land prices. I figure at current prices in my neighborhood, it would buy you enough land to run maybe 300 to 400 cows. It would be fewer if you’re somewhere close to scenery or cities.

If you die on Dec. 31, your kids’ bill is $350,000. Go the next day, it’s $2.75 million. Where are those kids going to come up with that much money on 400 cows? As one of the Amarillo participants said, almost incredulously, "if I die, my kids would have to sell everything to pay the taxes."

Well, yes. Believe it or not. And remember that the average age of farmers in this country is 55 and more than a third of us are over 65. This ain’t exactly long-term planning for a lot of us.

Second, what a fine program Kevin Spafford has put together. I can’t think of a single thing Farm Journal Media could offer its readership—recalling that average age thing—that would be of more value.

If my family is any indication—and judging by the folks I talked to at the workshop, we are—most farmers and ranchers are poorly prepared for the inevitable. We’ve got wills and estate plans, of course. But we don’t have succession plans, where we drag all the kids and parents together and hammer out a program based on consensus of what everybody wants. Kevin suggests that’s why 70% of family farms fail during the second generation.

Kevin’s got ideas that could put the "success" in succession, so to speak. I sure do wish my parents had generated such a program a generation ago. I hereby resolve to make my family do it in the very near future.

But back to the estate taxes, which just irk me despite the fact that I’m one of those who believe a dollar earned is worth ten dollars inherited. I don’t know any farmers who wouldn’t be caught in a death tax that kicks in at a million bucks.

We read a lot in the papers about the fiscal cliff. Here’s what I think farmers and ranchers should hope (and press their GOP congressmen) for: a compromise that allows Obama to raise INCOME taxes on the rich but holds the rest of the Bush tax cuts in place.

Avoiding the cliff would help avoid a recession that could starve the beef recovery, plus the estate tax is THE crucial threat to all of agriculture. We can live with higher income taxes, but not with 55% estate taxes.

We’re Red, They’re Blue

Nov 15, 2012

The 2012 presidential election was a big surprise to many of my friends. Most of us don’t know any democrats, unless you count our kids. We can’t imagine how a country could be so foolish.

We’re so upset, apparently, that thousands are signing petitions asking for their states to be allowed to secede. I presume they’re just trying to make a point, but they set off a rather nasty reaction.

The Post’s Dana Milbank had some snarky fun in Wednesday morning’s column, "The Confederacy of Takers."

He says let them secede. They take more from the government than they pay in, anyhow.

Here’s what Milbank and many others miss: This isn’t a blue state, red state, division. It is more accurately a failure to agree between urban and rural communities. We have our values. They have theirs. There are more of them.


The New York Times map make it clear. It’s easy to pick the blue metro areas out of the red states and the red rural areas in the blue states.

Here are some really cool maps showing how the country voted, adjusted so it’s easier to see the difference.

In fact, if you bear down further, you’ll find that there are pockets of red even in the blue urban areas. Even in New York, Romney ran well in Staten Island, but Obama picked up more than 90% of the vote in the Bronx. http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/states/new-york

For rural America, there is much to be thought about in all that.  For starters, if Mr. Milbanks wants to start kicking red voters out of the country, he’d better be sure his larder is full, because Ms.Obama’s metro gardens aren’t going to feed him very well.

But, deeper, it is about two different sets of values, both social and economic. Values are not math, so I’m not sure there is such a thing as a "right" and "wrong" in that debate.

My take-away here—remember this election was decided by just 2% wishy-washy voters—is that the U.S. is changing in ways we ruralistas may not like. We may not personally know a real democrat, except our children, but it looks like something we should get used to.

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