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“We're not anti-checkoff,”

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Feb 13, 2005
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Reforming US beef checkoff

Cattlemen's Day participants step up to reform national beef checkoff

By SHANNON BURKDOLL, The Prairie Star editor

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 2:03 PM MST

BILLINGS, Mont. - Cattle producers have been discussing the need for a change in the national beef checkoff in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling declaring the checkoff as “government speech.”

“What it came down to is that the checkoff is not producer law, it's government law,” said Steve Charter, who with his wife, Jeanne, ranches near Shepherd, Mont., and has fought the national beef checkoff for the past several years. “The Department of Agriculture has control over the checkoff and they're going to use it to get what they want. Right now, the NCBA (National Cattlemen's Beef Association) has the same goals as USDA.”

The Montana Cattlemen's Association and R-CALF USA jointly accepted a proposal designed to make the checkoff work for family produces during the organizations' fourth annual Cattlemen's Day on Saturday, Nov. 12, in Billings.

“This proposal is not to kill the beef checkoff program, but rather an effort to reform the program to make it more responsive to U.S. cattle producers,” explained John Lockie, Montana Cattlemen's Association executive director. “The proposal was adopted by the membership present at the Cattlemen's Day and will be forwarded to full membership for final approval.”

The checkoff reforming resolution, proposed by Dennis McDonald of the Montana Cattlemen's Association beef checkoff committee, calls for:

1. Checkoff dollars to be used to promote only beef from cattle born, raised and processed in the United States.

2. A periodic vote on the checkoff program every five years.

3. Prohibit any one cattle organization from serving as the “prime contractor” for the program, but allow all cattle organizations to participate in approved projects on a case-by-case basis.

4. Reform the National Beef Board to reflect proportional representation from all national cattle organizations.

5. Allow for checkoff expenditures to protect U.S. beef and cattle from unfair trade practices and to protect the U.S. cattle herd from import practices which threaten cattle herd health and beef consumers.

6. Allow checkoff expenditures to promote branded products from small and large packing entities.

7. Provide that 70 percent of all funds collected remain in the state were collected and 30 percent go to the National Beef Board.

8. Provide an exemption for producers contributing equal or greater funds into a private sector self-help effort.

“The cattle industry took a hit this spring with the checkoff vote and CAFTA,” said McDonald. “We need to get our own house in order before we take on others ... it is unfair to ask producers to pay into a program with which they may not agree and ask them again to support litigation for that program.”

The proposed checkoff reform resolution received wide support by the Cattlemen's Day participants.

Lee Engelhart of the Cattle Producers of Washington said he believes the checkoff should be reformed to serve both the beef and cattle sectors of the industry. “I've paid $1.50 per head to the checkoff and they're always in the business of selling beef, but not saying anything about the American producer,” he said. “I am not in the business of selling beef. I sell live cattle.”

The Charters voiced their support for an exemption provision allowing producers to make a choice as to whether or not they participate in the beef checkoff. “The USDA is not our friend,” said Jeanne Charter, “but an exemption provision would give us a check on the USDA, and give the producers a voice and choice because if they don't like what the USDA is doing with the checkoff funds, they can put their money into another program. You know the USDA will raise hell when they start losing their funds.”

Ken Knuppe of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association said his organization has already approved a similar resolution and believes the checkoff should promote U.S. beef products rather than a generic beef product. “This checkoff hasn't changed in the last 20 years,” he said. “And it has to be used to promote a generic product - not U.S. beef over imported beef. And a large portion of the Beef Board membership is made up of representatives from which we import beef.”

In addition, Knuppe said he supports the provision for a periodic vote to “keep the power in the producers' hands. A vote needs to be there for the people who raise beef in the United States.”

After the resolution is either approved or disapproved by the Montana Cattlemen's Association and R-CALF USA membership, McDonald said the next step is to file a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting a vote on checkoff reform. Checkoff reform is a “work in progress,” said McDonald who has visited with several leading legal professionals across the nation who have said the checkoff language is very unclear. “The language in the act may not allow for any amendments to be made, other than an up or down vote. The language isn't clear. Will the petition amendments negate a vote? I'm not sure.”

The next step, after the resolution receives membership approval, he said, is to get 10 percent or about 70,000 of the nation's producers to sign a petition for checkoff reform.

Even if the petition receives 70,000 valid signatures, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has discretion over whether or not the petition sees a vote, but McDonald said he's not worried about that saying the political ramifications of turning it down would preserve the petition's right to receive a vote.

“We're not anti-checkoff,” said Doug Zalesky of the Colorado Independent Cattlemen's Association. “We're anti- the way it is now. Some argue the checkoff works against you. There is not adequate representation from all the organizations on there. There is another cattle organization in the nation and people need to realize that.”


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