NOBULL: Proposed beef fee on bumpy path

Proposed beef fee on bumpy path

By Art Hovey/Lincoln Journal Star

CLATONIA — Having the state’s largest livestock organization test the potential for passage of a state beef checkoff might seem to give the idea a leg up.

But maybe that link has its limits.

The Nebraska Cattlemen got some very mixed reaction Monday night to the idea of a mandatory $1-per-head fee to be charged for beef promotion at point of sale.

“Think about a state like Idaho,” the Cattlemen’s Dave Hamilton suggested in urging consideration of payments that could amplify the selling points of Nebraska beef. “What comes to mind? Idaho potatoes.”

But audience participation indicated about 40 people were thinking about both the pluses and minuses of the proposed fee.

That included some criticism of a $1 checkoff fee in place at the national level for similar purposes since 1985. It currently raises about $71.5 million annually from producers.

“I would say, if it’s not guaranteeing me a profit, why am I investing in it?” Dave Wright of Neligh said.

The Clatonia event was the fourth in a series of nine input meetings scheduled by the Cattlemen. The first was in Columbus in late February and the last will be in Thedford on March 26.

If the overall feedback is favorable, the state’s largest livestock organization will seek referendum support from producers and then legislation in 2014 to establish a state checkoff.

Its national counterpart has been a source of tension in the past because of spending irregularities. There also have been fiery exchanges concerning how much of a firewall exists between the dues-paying and policy-shaping National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, parent organization of the Nebraska Cattlemen, and spenders of mandatory checkoff dollars.

In describing the rational for a state checkoff, Thedford rancher Hamilton, head of Cattlemen’s checkoff working group, pointed out that inflation has eaten away at the dollars raised nationally.

One consequence is a withdrawal from costly television advertising.

He also called attention to the shrinking size of the herd. Fewer cattle means fewer sales and less checkoff revenue.

Wright, who repeatedly questioned Cattlemen intent, did so as the president of the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, a group frequently at odds with the Nebraska Cattlemen.

But Wright was far from alone in voicing doubts or opposition to a state checkoff or, in other cases, arguing forcefully for how a state cattle fee should be structured.

Another audience member said coming up with beef promotional money to counter the message from the Humane Society of the United States wouldn’t change the economics of a business that often struggles to make money.

“Can we blame the animal rights people for a 41 percent decrease in the number of beef producers?”

Another man voiced his displeasure with a system in which the national checkoff isn’t always paid because of the circumstances under which cattle are sold

A direct sale from a rancher to a feedlot, for example, falls through the payment cracks

“You can double mine and I don’t care,” he said, “but I want to make sure everybody pays it.”

Others were more enthusiastic about raising more revenue for beef promotion.

“I think it’s up to us to promote our own product,” said one.

Before the Clatonia discussion, Hamilton said about 200 people had attended the first three sessions in Columbus, Atkinson and Burwell.

“We’ve seen all ends of spectrum,” he said of feedback received so far.

The next input opportunity is scheduled for the Wisner Auditorium on Wednesday night.