If Only Three, What Would They Be?


Commentary by Bill Bullard, CEO, R-CALF USA

The long-awaited 2023 Farm Bill is delayed. Some in Congress say it may get done, or at least get started by this spring, but others say it’s most likely to be held up until after the November election, meaning it would be completed during the lame duck session.

We just don’t know. What we do know is that when we talk to members of Congress and when we hear what their Farm Bill priorities are in media reports, we’re not hearing much at all about reforms needed for the largest segment of American agriculture, and that segment is, of course, the U.S. cattle industry. 

Instead, what we’re hearing are Farm Bill priorities for reforming the crop insurance program, updating reference prices, supporting export promotion, increasing broadband, and addressing climate change.

Well, none of these were on our priority list that we included in our 2023 Farm Bill paper sent to Congress titled, “R-CALF USA’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform: The U.S. Cattle Industry Is Facing a Severe and Unprecedented Crisis.”

In that paper, we documented that the average age of America’s cattlemen and women is steadily climbing and is now about 59 years old – meaning our industry is not attracting enough new entrants to maintain its long-term viability. We also documented that the cattle industry is shrinking at an alarming rate in terms of its number of actual cattle producers, the shrinking size of the U.S. cattle herd, and the loss of cattle marketing outlets.

Though we’re waiting on the 2022 census data to inform us as to what’s happened to our industry since the last 2017 census, we’ve already documented that over the past few decades, we’ve lost over half a million cattle producers, our herd size has been reduced to the lowest level in about seven decades, and while we now have only four packers controlling 85% of the fed cattle market, out feedlot numbers have declined by 77%. Very recently we lost another 1,000 feedlots between 2020 and 2021, and yet another 1,000 between 2021 and 2022. This is not at all good.

We pointed out that both globalization and industry concentration were destroying the economic viability of our industry for independent cattle producers. And so, our Farm Bill priorities included reforms to combat these negative forces that are directly threatening America’s food security.

We included reforms to address our industry’s lack of competition, the untenable power disparity between packers and producers, the market-distorting trade policies, as well as the market-distorting industry promotion funded by beef checkoff dollars.

In all, our Farm Bill priorities included over 25 reforms needed to put our U.S. cattle industry on the road to recovery.

But with the long delay of the Farm Bill and the prospects that Congress will now hurriedly slap a farm bill together, the inclusion of our 25 specific reforms in what will hopefully be a 2024 Farm Bill is not likely.

This means we need to prioritize our priorities and fight to make them Congress’ priorities.

So, what if we can only include three of our priorities in the 2024 Farm Bill? What would they be?

We’ve thought long and hard about this and here are what our three priorities would be:

  1. Restore mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) for beef so all beef sold in grocery stores would be labeled as to where the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered. An MCOOL label will empower consumers to seek out and purchase beef exclusively produced in the United States, and doing so will strengthen America’s food security.
  2. Force the concentrated beef packers to compete for the cattle they slaughter by requiring them to purchase at least half their cattle from the negotiated cash market each week and prohibit cattle purchasing contracts that do not contain a firm, negotiated base price.
  3.  Prohibit mandatory beef checkoff dollars from flowing to lobbying organizations. This reform is needed as several checkoff-funded lobbying groups fight to prevent our first two priorities: MCOOL and forcing packers to compete for their cattle.

Legislation has already been introduced in Congress to accomplish these three priorities, so all Congress would have to do is insert these initiatives into its base version of the 2024 Farm Bill.

For example, Senate Bill 52, the American Beef Labeling Act, and House Bill 5081, the Country of Origin Labeling Enforcement Act, would both restore MCOOL.

The Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act, Senate Bill 270 and House Bill 798, both contain sections to require beef packers to purchase half their cattle in the negotiated cash market and prohibit contracts lacking a firm negotiated base price.

And the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act) introduced as Senate Bill 557 and House Bill 1249 would prohibit lobbying groups from receiving checkoff funding.

So, there they are. If we can have only three, these are what they’d be.