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HAY MAKER

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Nebraska Independent Cattle
Group Focuses On Producers

By David Bowser

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Chris Abbott, a Gordon, Neb., rancher, is one of the six cattlemen suing Tyson-IBP over the use of marketing agreements. He is active in R-CALF USA, an organization that has taken on packer concentration and is now involved in a battle to keep the U.S. border closed to Canadian cattle and beef.

More recently, Abbott and fellow plaintiff in the Tyson-IBP case, Bob Rothwell, another Nebraska rancher, joined other producers to form the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, or ICON.

ICON was an outgrowth of a suggestion by Omaha attorney David Domina, the lead attorney for the cattlemen in the Tyson-IBP lawsuit, and encouragement by R-CALF.

The new organization, Abbott says, will represent only one sector of the beef industry. He says the decision to organize ICON was made because he and his compadres did not think a large national organization could properly represent all sectors of such a segmented industry.

"We solely represent, promote and protect independent cattlemen," Abbott says. "Not any packers."

He feels that his new organization will focus tightly on the challenges independent cattlemen are facing today.

"It's really clear that one organization is not representing us all," Abbott says. "That's the main reason we're up and going, to represent our sector of the industry, the independent cattleman, producer and feeder."

Abbott's concerns are rural America and the cattlemen who live there.

"You talk about rural America, rural Nebraska," Abbott says. "Rural Nebraska is the breadbasket of rural America."

There were about 100 people from Western Nebraska at the ICON meeting here.

"You look in the Sandhills and South Dakota and North Dakota, Montana, on into Washington State, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada," Abbott says. "That whole country is pretty much folks who live on cattle. That's where R-CALF is really strong. We're just kind of breaking into this part of the country where we're getting into the farmers and a lot of the feedlots."

The feedlot people have really become interested and concerned here in the last few months, he says.

"I've been helping out with R-CALF since last April," Abbott says. "In 2004 alone I went to 14 sale barns and eight different meetings across the state. I cannot express how important these sale barns are across our country."

Nebraska has the largest infrastructure of sale barns across the country.

"It's our most competitive market out there," Abbott says. "It's important to us cattlemen to support our local auction market, because they support our community."

In a lot of smaller communities, the sale barn is the life and blood of the community.

"I was down in Alma, Neb., a few weeks ago, and that sale barn had been shut down for a year or two and they got it back up and going," Abbott says. "I asked one of the folks behind the auction block how many folks are employed there. He said 27."

R-CALF has been holding fundraising auctions at many of the sale barns in Nebraska and surrounding states.

The auctioneer at Alma told Abbott not to get his hopes up that night. The auctioneer said he didn't know if they would be able to raise even a couple of thousand dollars for R-CALF.

"An hour later, we had over $7500," Abbott says. "We're getting a lot of eager farmers from the Platte Valley south."

Abbott and Rothwell spent a month in Montgomery, Ala., during the first part of 2004, while the Tyson-IBP case was being heard.

"In that courtroom, it was revealed just how important Nebraska is," Abbott says.

The judge was from Nebraska, the lead attorney for the cattlemen was from Nebraska, and two of the six plaintiffs in the case were from Nebraska.

"That's not the reason that Nebraska's so key," Abbott says, "but we found out in that courtroom that there are three states across our country that are major cattle feeding states, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas."

He says there are just 300 feedlots left in Texas.

"In Nebraska," he says, "there's over 2000."

What makes Nebraska such a key state and what makes it important to R-CALF, Abbott says, is the independent cattle feeders.

Abbott says the last few weeks they've been having a tough time selling their cattle.

"I know it's tough selling cattle out of the feedlots," Abbott says. "Those guys are the ones in the hot seat."

The dispute over opening the U.S. border to Canadian cattle is the primarily issue today, he believes.

"If the USDA is successful," Abbott says, "the U.S. will have the lowest import standards from countries known to have BSE of any modern consuming country. It's really important to think about that."

Abbott says independent cattlemen need to stand up and be counted.

"We're in the fight of our lives," Abbott insists. "We've got to really stay up on what's happening."

His other concern is packer ownership of cattle.

"Bob and I are certainly involved," Abbott says.

“It's unfortunate that we cattlemen have to resort to the court system in order to get our elected officials to enforce the laws that were written by some pretty wise men a long time ago," Abbott says. "I'm talking about the Packers and Stockyard Act. A hundred years ago, we were having the same problem. Back then, there were five packers that controlled over 50 percent of our market. Today, we have three packers that control 80 percent of our market. It's not looking good. It's something that definitely needs to be addressed."

Other issues on the table are mandatory country of origin labeling and the beef checkoff.

"The Supreme Court should rule on the checkoff in the late spring or early summer," Abbott says.

Individual animal identification is also a concern.

"There's a lot of talk about that out there," Abbott says. "There's a lot of talk about that issue."

As a fifth generation Nebraska rancher, Abbott thinks the issue has already been addressed.

"It's important, I think," Abbott says, "that they recognize our brands. We could probably implement animal ID this year."

He says it's hard to say whether that will happen, though many in states with strict brand laws agree.

"The most important issues," Abbott says, "are the international free trade agreements."

The Australian Free Trade Agreement was implemented a year ago. This was with a country that has 26 million head of cattle, he points out.

Now the government is presenting the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, to Congress.

CAFTA will be the most liberal agreement yet, he says.

"It will be the blueprint of the Andean agreement and the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement," Abbott says. "With those two agreements, there's over 200 million head of cattle."

He says U.S. cattlemen have to get involved in these issues.

The problem, he says, is not just trying to keep the ranch together today, but to be able to pass it down to the next generation.

"We've got fewer and fewer younger people coming back to these rural communities," Abbott notes.

Abbott's son, Carver, knows only too well the problems he's going to have to face.

"I come from the Sand Hills," Carver says, "and I'd really like to go back there and grow cattle there and get a square deal on the job and the time I put in on those cattle. We're proud of them. I want to go back there, and that's something I really want to do."

Like many who grew up in the ranching community, Carver has always wanted to have his own place.

"I've wanted to do it since I was just a little guy," Carver says. "I always thought that being a rancher meant feeding your cattle when they're hungry and making sure they have water in front of them when they're thirsty. I thought that'd be about it. As I got older and matured a little bit, I realized that there was a lot more that went into it than that."

After high school, Carver went to college at Hays State University in Hays, Kan.

"I started out as an ag major there," he says. "I was rodeoing pretty hard, too."

That first semester, he says, a lot of his classes dealt with vertical integration.

"I started paying attention," Carver says, "because that's something that has a lot to do with me."

He says it also would impact his family, friends and the communities of Western Nebraska.

"In every aspect of day-to-day life you can see it," Carver says. "They were really pushing this stuff hard on us down there."

He says he began thinking about it and was wondering if maybe Wal-Mart was vertically integrated.

"Coming into these communities and, yeah, they're bringing a lot of jobs in," Carver says, "but a lot of people forget about the old woman or the old man downtown with their grocery store who can't afford to put the food on their shelves for the prices that Wal-Mart charges. To me, that's vertical integration."

Carver says the dictionary defines vertical integration is any management plan that owns every aspect of a business and controls every aspect of a business from production to the final sale.

"It also says it was designed specifically to eliminate any intermediaries," Carver says. "That kind of hit me pretty hard, because I'm an intermediary. An intermediary is a middleman."

Carver feels he's been caught in the middle.

"Whichever way you want to look at it," he says, "anybody who’s being squeezed out and pushed around by the big guys is an intermediary."

Consequently, Carver says he's really taken an interest in the issues in which his father is involved.

"We need people, we need everybody to become involved within the industry and pick organizations that will represent them well," Carver says.

He says that if a cattleman's happy with the way things are going, then by all means they need to follow their own trail.

"But if you feel there's a change needed and some things that need to be done to better our industry," he says, "and increase the chances that guys like myself and other kids and grandkids can do something that they love to do and won't be forced out of rural America and small communities where we grew up and have to go to the cities and find different jobs doing things you may not want to do, some things we feel we weren't born to do."

Carver sees the challenges facing the industry personally and says he could be out of business before he really gets started.

"That hits pretty close to home," Carver says. "I'm not scared of it. I realize that's a fact of life and that could happen, but it's great to become involved and see everybody else getting excited about it, because I think we can turn some things around and get the ball rolling in the right direction."

He says a lot of people have donated money, time and effort for R-CALF and ICON.

"This isn't a social club,” Carver says. “It's an organization that's going to let your voice be heard. The money isn't a handout. It's an investment in your future."
 

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