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Stockgrowers told industry is primed for the future

KALISPELL - Where's the beef? It's in Kalispell, where ranchers wrangled Friday with meaty issues at the annual midyear meeting of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

The association, which represents nearly 3,500 cattlemen statewide, lassoed a crowd of about 300 for the beef confab, which included talks about markets, international trade and the threat posed by wolves.

And if it seems you're hearing more lately about Montana's cash on the hoof, it's because the stockgrowers have taken the message to the streets - and to grocery stores, to the Legislature and to Congress and to just about everywhere else you might care to look.

Ranching and agriculture "did better than any other special interest group" during the recent legislative session, according to John Bloomquist, primary lobbyist for the association.

Calling the 1999 session a "watershed" event, Bloomquist offered a long list of legislative victories scored by and for Montana's cattle producers. He highlighted reductions to business and property taxes, opposition to grizzly-bear habitat expansions, relaxation of some environmental regulations, strengthening of property rights, strengthening controls on noxious weeds, addition of taxpayer money for agricultural programs, and preservation of open-space ranches in the form of agricultural easements.

More good news for the industry was presented by Charlene Schuster of the Montana Beef Council. Schuster gave ranchers an update on her efforts to get Montana beef from the pasture to the platter. Applebee's restaurant chain, for example, has joined up with other restaurants and the council to promote beef, which includes radio and TV promotions.

About 1,000 Albertson's stores also signed on, sending staff butchers to "beef college" and promoting beef in their stores. More than 20,000 "education kits" also were sent to schools, offering information about ranching, beef and nutrition.

According to predictions by Dr. Gary Brester, more good news is on the horizon for the state's cattle producers. Brester, professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University in Bozeman, reported strong prospects for short-term cattle prices. And, he said, the long-term outlook remains favorable, especially during the next four to five years.

But the good news is tempered by a fair share of bad news, as cattlemen face several obstacles to their industry.

"The battle is not over by any imagination," said association President Keith Bales. "We must maintain a unified state and national presence."

That may be difficult, however, because of term limits, which will force several pro-ranching legislators out of Helena's halls. During the next session, 13 senators and 33 representatives will "term-limit out," and even more will not be allowed to return in 2002, Bloomquist said.

"That's going to create an entirely different atmosphere in Helena," he said.

Bloomquist also noted that not all of the 1999 legislative news was good, expressing disappointment that the association was unable to push through a 4 percent sales tax and stiffer requirements for initiatives and referendums.

Other challenges to ranchers are a number of international trade issues, including export subsidies for ranchers in the European Union. According to Ralph Peck, director of the state Department of Agriculture, ranchers from Montana and Alberta, Canada, sat down recently to talk trade, and those discussions will be the foundation for an upcoming cattle summit that will include representatives from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Another major trade obstacle is that the European Union is not interested in buying American beef that has been given growth hormones or genetically altered feed. Those overseas consumers, Peck said, are "wary of hormones and science," a stance he called "irrational."

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He fears pushing the issue, though, because that may cause current buyers of U.S. beef - such as Japan and South Korea - to jump on the anti-hormone bandwagon. A wait-and-see approach might be better, he cautioned, becaus

e the European Union's hormone-free beef, fed with natural grains, eventually will become more expensive to provide.

"And when it hits the pocketbooks of those consumers, they're going to like our hormones … pretty darn well," he said.

Meantime, Peck said, cattle producers should continue to feed stock with genetically altered grains, because doing so reduces costs, which keeps American meat competitive.

Trade and tariff issues, he said, may be the biggest obstacles facing ranchers today. However, the most heartfelt issue is not an abstraction such as the World Trade Organization or Canadian imports, but rather a longstanding feud with a natural predator.

It's no surprise that ranchers have a beef with wolves, animals that Steve Pilcher called "cold, cunning killers … that might look better with a bull's eye on their shoulder."

Pilcher is natural resources coordinator for the association, and is using that post to stump for reform to the Endangered Species Act. Pilcher faults the legislation as being well-intentioned but flawed, causing impossible hurdles for cattle producers.

It is the livestock producers, he said, who are becoming the new endangered species. "The proverbial wolf is at the door," he said, "and you just have to stand there and watch the wolf take its toll. There's something wrong with that picture."

Pilcher has created a strategy for the association concerning the Endangered Species Act in general and wolves in particular, and hopes the organization can use its political influence to give ranchers control over the wild lands in which their cattle roam.

A good first step, he said, will be to encourage relations with Animal Damage Control, the government agency charged, in part, with killing troublesome wildlife.

"That's a real friend," he said of the agency.

Pilcher's strategy also includes an attempt to remove wolves and other species from the endangered species list, or at least to modify criteria to make it easier to take animals from the rolls.

Another arm of the strategy, he said, is to form allegiances with diverse groups, including sportsmen who he said should be concerned about wolves killing wild game. He said the association will collect data on wolf populations and numbers of livestock killed by wolves.

Both totals, he predicted, are far higher than government officials are saying. According to state surveys, about 170,000 head of livestock die each year before making it to market, most succumbing to disease and problems at birth. In recent years, official counts have pegged the number of livestock killed by wolves per year at 6.5, a number that Pilcher claims is far below reality.

Pilcher wants an insurance policy to pay for cattle killed by wolves. Defenders of Wildlife currently offers such a program. However, to receive reimbursement, a rancher must prove the animal was killed by wolves. Pilcher wants a mechanism to pay ranchers who cannot offer such proof.

"We've got to move quickly so we can get a handle on this monster," he said.

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