Source: Associated Press
The North Dakota Stockmen's Association plans to ask the 2015 Legislature to double the $1-per-head checkoff that ranchers pay when they sell cattle.
The national beef checkoff, which is used to fund beef research, education and promotion, hasn't changed for nearly three decades, prompting seven states to increase it at the state level in recent years. Chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees say that for North Dakota to become the eighth, the Stockmen's will need to show that an increase is necessary.
Lawmakers "have always been a little reluctant to increase fees unless justified," said Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, a grain farmer and former rancher. "Whenever we talk about checkoff increases, there's always going to be a good hearing as to why it's needed. If they can justify it — if their members want it — they'll probably get the support."
Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, also a farmer, didn't speculate about possible support among lawmakers but said Stockmen's leaders will need to "properly lay out their reasoning," and that the proposal will be "thoroughly examined and properly scrutinized."
Congress authorized the national beef checkoff program at the dollar-per-head level in 1985. The North Dakota Beef Commission is required to forward half of the money collected from ranchers in the state to a national beef board. The other half can be used in-state or for national efforts. The amount spent in-state varies from year to year, according to Stockmen's Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson.
"Because of lower cattle numbers in the country and the inflation factor, the estimate is that the $1 checkoff has only 47 cents of the buying power it had in 1985," Ellingson said. "We have less dollars in the pool to make those investments" in bolstering beef production and consumption.
Under the Stockmen's proposal, half of the $2 checkoff for every animal sold would go to the national board and the other half would stay with the state Beef Commission. Ranchers would have the option of asking for the second dollar to be refunded — effectively making participation in the checkoff increase voluntary.
Beef prices in the grocery store are at or near record highs, but Ellingson said that could make other meats more attractive.
"We want to remain competitive and promote our product," she said. "It's great to have high prices, but we also don't want to turn consumers away to a different protein product."
Towner rancher and Stockmen's President Jason Zahn said the state group would prefer a national increase in the checkoff but that a national consensus needed to push a fee hike through Congress appears unlikely. In the absence of that, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington have increased checkoffs at the state level.
Stockmen's leaders plan to visit with legislative leaders to gauge support for the proposed raise.
"Anytime you increase a fee you're going to get some pushback," Zahn said. But with recent good years for ranchers due to higher cattle prices and cheaper feed, "now is probably a good time to get ahead of the ballgame," he said.
Stockmen's members passed a resolution seeking a checkoff increase during their annual convention in late September.
"We've been talking about this for eight or nine years," Zahn said. "We felt that now was the time."