Darvin Bentlage

Darvin Bentlage

As of May, this year the U.S. imported 1.3 billion pounds of beef from 20 different countries, most from Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Nicaragua and Brazil. The U.S. is the No. 2 importer of beef worldwide, closely following China.

Derrell Peel, livestock specialist at Oklahoma State University, conducted a study about the effect of the pandemic on cattle markets and found “a weighted average damage estimate to the cow-calf sector due to COVID-19 could be $3.7 billion ($111.91 per mature breeding animal). In addition to the loss in calf sales value, the loss in value of breeding stock is estimated at $4.45 billion ($142 per mature breeding female).”

This is disastrous to family-farm cattle producers like me and our rural economies, but there is one potential bright spot: The pandemic has put corporate control of our protein production supply into the spotlight, and some things are starting to finally happen. But it’s our job to demand that something actually changes to address the extreme concentration and centralized control of the livestock industry.

The U.S. Department of Justice is looking into price fixing in the poultry industry by the big poultry corporations, as well as antitrust issues in the cattle industry. Beef production is 85% controlled by just four meatpackers: Tyson, JBS (Brazil), Cargill and National Beef (majority owned by Brazil’s Marfrig).

U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., have asked the Federal Trade Commission to examine the extreme concentration in the beef industry.

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced a bipartisan resolution to restore country of origin labeling (COOL) to address foreign imported beef and consumer’s right to choose beef born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. (Senate Resolution 575). However, organizations that purportedly represent cattle producers, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, are lobbying against reinstatement of COOL, showing who they really represent.

Tester and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, are also pushing a bipartisan resolution 50/14 law (Senate Bill 3693) requiring meatpackers to purchase 50% of their supply on the cash market and not own cattle more than 14 days before slaughter. This will help combat the practice of contracting up to 70% of their supply and purchasing only 30% of supply on the cash market. This would be a step in the right direction to help restore the distorted price discovery program and address our massive concentration problem in the cattle industry.

It’s our job to make our congressional representatives pass Senate Resolution 575 and Senate Bill 3693. Please contact your senators to voice support. Rarely in these times do we see as much bipartisan work on a single problem on which so many of us agree.

My son told me that the price of hamburger in Springfield was $9 per pound. I was sitting in the pasture looking at all the cows with their calves; hard to imagine they aren’t worth as much as a pound of hamburger.

Darvin Bentlage is a Barton County cattleman and a board member of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.