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July 2009 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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Checkoff Perceptions and Digressions

Jul 27, 2009

By Steve Cornett

About half way through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association summer meeting in Denver it struck me that we aren’t going to have a new national checkoff law for a long, long time.

Instead, we’re going to add a new layer of voluntary and state level promotion programs with funds going to the state beef councils rather than the national Cattlemen’s Beef Board. 

It’s not the ideal way to fund beef promotion. There will be a certain number of remora guys not paying but enjoying the fruit of others’ salesmanship. States with lots of cattle and not many consumers will raise more money than they can spend usefully in-state while places like Connecticut will get zero.
We’ve been through all this before, beginning before the Great Depression. It began with voluntary programs—packers and some producers paying voluntary per-head assessments. By the time the current law was passed, many states had mandated their own checkoff programs. Perfect or not, they raised quite a bit of money and developed a bicameral sort of system that involved in-state beef councils which developed and supported a national program.

Last issue, we wondered about ways to make NCBA more umbrellaish. That’s what they want—and should want—to do. They want to, and should, be THE cattle industry group. The suggestion here was that the policy folks might consider adopting some sort of a super majority requirement before devoting staff time to projects involving intra-industry conflict. 

It was clear at the summer meeting in Denver the following week that the suggestion would skip across the waters of NCBA leadership like a ball bearing. NCBA President Gary Voogt told the assemblage that the editorial (click here to read the editorial) had been “passing around,” and he’d given it some thought and he didn’t like it. Not everybody I talked to agrees with him, but you’ll be able to shove a maize fork into my gaping maw should the Governance Task Force report next winter include any such recommendation.

I’m not really sure how much I disagree. My track record and net worth at this late stage of life indicates that I’m not always right. The idea of a national group not taking a position on important issues like COOL and packer ownership of cattle takes some getting used to, at the least.
But, in the sense of “ahem, ahem” it is worth noting that at the same assembly, the executive committee of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board asked for—and got—some distance from NCBA. They felt there was a “perception” among some cattlemen that NCBA leaders should not be sitting in on CBB nominating committee interviews.

That request caused quite a stir, for there is some concern among NCBA folks that the CBB wants a full divorce; that the current leadership of CBB wants to unmerge the merger so to speak.

That’s one reason NCBA members are pushing for voluntary checkoff programs. They see the need for more checkoff-type funds—but they don’t seem interested in trying to get THIS congress to pass a new law in THIS environment. Which is to say, an environment in which there is, shall we say, not a full consensus on how the checkoff should be run and administered.

As I suggested earlier, NCBA’s  perceived role with the checkoff has engendered some organized opposition. The splinter groups that splinted after the merger tend to resent the association’s status as lead contractor. 

They resent it not because they doubt the checkoff’s benefits, in most cases, but because they disagree with NCBA on policy issues. Even though they are hard pressed to find an example of the “firewall” between NCBA and CBB being breached, they suspect there are such. 

That’s what the CBB wants to avoid. Hence their request for a little more arm’s lenghthiness.

But the CBB—like many of us--also thinks checkoff should be amended, primarily because inflation and herd liquidation have about halved their ability to do their job.

But, of course, the CBB can’t lobby. If they did lobby up a new bill, they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it to cow owner voters. The splinter groups—who would also like a new law, if only to spite NCBA--don’t have the national reach or lobbying muscle to help much.

So it would be up to NCBA, as it was last time, to do the campaigning for any new mandatory checkoff. But CBB wants their distance, which irritates no few of the people they would need to swing NCBA behind them.

And so, there you have it. Don’t bet on a new checkoff law anytime soon. CBB leadership obviously— and correctly in my opinion—believes the perception of an incestuous relationship with NCBA would complicate efforts to write and pass a new law.

NCBA leadership thinks—also correctly as near as I can tell—that CBB is reacting to a false perception and they believe deep inside their warm hearts (and hard heads) that the merger has been wonderful.

So as near as I can tell they’re both right. It’s too bad that NCBA has pushed so hard on a very few divisive issues and thus made so many fraternal enemies that CBB feels it must desnuggle.

Well, lookie here! We’re back at the same point we left last time. If NCBA’s policy development were more cognizant of intra-industry dissonance, the association wouldn’t have so many enemies casting about for things to cast aspersions about, would it?

And CBB wouldn’t have to worry about false perceptions and we could all have a new checkoff to do the stuff the checkoff does so well.

Not that I’m nagging.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


The Trouble with NCBA

Jul 13, 2009

By Steve Cornett

It is a sour time in the cattle business as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association prepares to gather for its midyear meeting in Denver this week. This economy bodes to keep beef demand—and, of course, cattle prices—low at the same time the federal government is on something of a stampede toward more expensive regulations concerning everything from the environment to energy to food safety, all financed with higher taxes.

I suppose I’ve been to every NCBA summer meeting since the mid-80s. I can’t think of a time when that was scarier with less cause for short-term optimism. Hard times make for interesting meetings, though. My favorite part of NCBA has always been the committee meetings, where you get to hear both from specialists and from producers with every shade of opinion you can imagine. That’s how a big-tent organization should work. It’s what is missing from the policy development process at places like R-Calf, where folks belong because they agree with the leadership on a couple of issues.

It is a messy way to make policy, all that debate, and nobody agrees with every decision. The founders of R-Calf dropped out of NCBA you’ll recall because votes didn’t go to suit them. That’s partly a result of personalities—you noticed that many of them were finally driven out of R-Calf and had to start yet another new organization because they couldn’t get along with themselves, either.

But they also had a point. These guys are downright convinced that beef imports and beef packers are driving them out of business. They’re wrong. They’ve got the blame placed wrong and thus advocate policies that will speed the industry’s decline, but it’s hard to blame them for starting their own movement. They weren’t all that outvoted on most of the issues that drove them away. Those were close votes. But they resulted in 100% NCBA policy.

If NCBA is to be the “umbrella” organization for the beef industry, it should devise a system that would respect minority opinion. If I thought, for instance, that NAFTA was the reason my calves are so cheap, you’d have to forgive me for not supporting an NCBA that is fully committed to free trade. If I were an Iowa corn farmer, you’d have to forgive me for resenting an NCBA that opposes federal ethanol subsidies.

So what if NCBA only adopted policy that is agreed upon by a supermajority? Maybe two-thirds? If you can’t get that supermajority on an issue, then drop it and concentrate on the issues in which do have an industry consensus. They could get consensus on things like estate taxes and public lands issues and animal rights. Put the lobbying team to work on those issues and don’t drive off half your members because 49% of them think you’re working against their best interests.    

That way, the guys in South Dakota could support NCBA and work with Texas and Kansas feeders on 90% of the issues threatening them, and if they still want the government to save them from packers and Canucks, they could continue to pour money into R-Calf’s lawsuits. It wouldn’t take long before a separate group, devoted to free enterprise and sharing the NCBA majority’s distaste for government intervention would coalesce.

Let them fight over those issues separately. When it comes to the bread-and-butter issues, keep them all at the big table under the big umbrella.

NCBA leadership has been trying to find a way to keep everybody happy for years. They create segment councils. They reallocate votes. They add mail-in ballots. They’re trying again now. But so long as the association policy requires them to put 100% effort behind a 51% consensus, somebody is going to be unhappy—and that lack of a united front is killing the industry.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Beef Today Cattle Drive e-newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes beef industry analysis, market information as well as the latest beef headline news. Click here to subscribe.


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