As droves of cattle producers, agribusiness folks and others concerned about the beef industry filled the American Legion in Wessington Springs on Friday evening, January 3, it was evident the Foothills Cattle Producers struck a chord of interest among South Dakota ranchers.
 
Earlier this fall a small group of cattlemen and women, now known as the Foothills Cattle Producers (FCP), gathered together and established a plan of action.  Their first move was to draw awareness to increasing the market value of their cattle as well as correcting the false labeling of U.S. beef products. What better way to do so than invite industry expert insight as well as encourage the participation of policy makers themselves?
 
The group’s first "Roundup" began by serving a beef meal and  informational meeting lead by Corbitt Wall, commercial cattle manager and livestock market analyst for DVAuction of Canyon, Texas.  Wall's presentation offered a thorough explanation as to what issues may be causing the cattle market's decline and small profit margins for producers as well as a history in the beef trade industry itself.  He also extended his own opinion on how producers might benefit from changing up their marketing methods, different obstacles that labeling laws can present once put into place and to pay close attention to the current Swine Flu crisis that has caused China to lose nearly half of their hog breeding population, leaving them at a loss of protein for consumption.  With Australia providing a large amount of beef imports for China and the ongoing and devastating fires engulfing their country, industry experts speculate China will be hungry and on the hunt for a major source in importing proteins.  U.S.A. beef could certainly curb their appetite.
 
He also left the crowd of nearly 300 with a sentiment that most producers realize, but those outside of the industry may not, "Nobody takes better care of our cattle than us."  And for that reason Wall pointed out, some of the best beef comes from America.
 
South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, who was also in attendance, reiterated Wall’s point of the importance of China being short of protein. “China officials reported they’ve lost one third of their swine herd to Swine Flu.  That is more than the entire swine population of the United States and that number might be conservative because their producers can’t and won’t control this outbreak.  This could be an explanation of why they told us they were putting tariffs on soybeans… and they weren’t buying our soybeans… and that might have been because they knew they didn’t have hogs to feed it to at the time.”
 
Rounds was also able to speak on behalf of he and Senator Thune's recently introduced Beef Integrity Act, which he feels has great timing in light of China’s pork crisis.  Rounds explained The U.S. Beef Integrity Act would make certain that the “Product of the U.S.A.” label only goes to beef and beef products exclusively derived from one or more animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Currently, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does not require that beef be born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. in order to carry a “Product of the U.S.A.” label. This loophole allows beef from livestock born and raised in foreign countries to be labeled “Product of the U.S.A.” as long as the beef undergoes additional processing at a processing plant in the U.S.
“Our cattle producers offer some of the highest-quality beef in the world,” said Rounds.  He further went on to explain that the mislabeling of foreign beef misleads consumers into thinking they are purchasing American made products.  “What we’ve discovered (through research and survey) is that “product of the USA” is a voluntary product… but the packers want it bad.. and so what they are doing is they are bringing beef from all over the world into the United States and as long as it was processed, even re-processed in a US plant, they can label it product of the U.S.A. and that misleads consumers.  So what we decided we were going to do is take that voluntary label and only make it available to those that are only putting your (U.S.) beef in that package.”
 
Many industry enthusiasts in the crowd expressed the need for the re-instatement of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) to Senator Rounds during an open discussion period.  Rounds explained that while many are in favor of COOL, adding that to the U.S. Beef Integrity Act would quickly put their plan to bed due to heavy restrictions that must occur within the processing plants when COOL is in place.
 
“The Beef Integrity Act is designed to be something that we could actually accomplish.  We don’t see a forward path with COOL.  In adding COOL, we send a death note to that bill that had a good shot of passing,” Rounds offered.
While this might not have been what folks in the room wanted to hear, Wall backed Round’s judgment.  “If a U.S. cow plant receives a load of Canadian origin cattle, what happens when they come through the plant?  They have to shut the entire plant down and sanitize everything from that Canadian group of cattle, because if one trace of those cattle is left in the facility they can no longer label the U.S. cattle that come through later as such.  That slows production — and if you’re all about better cattle prices then you want smoke blowing out of the smoke stacks.”
 
Rounds added, “While the Integrity Act may not offer everything you get with country of origin labeling… If we can get packers to actually understand the value of labeling something as product of the USA… if we can show them that there is a strong market for that… that is an awfully powerful tool to have,” Rounds pointed out. “We know it’s not perfect, but we really feel it’s a step in the right direction.”
 
Following the cattle market segment of the evening, Suzy Geppert, executive director of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council, delivered a simple message to the attendees.  She strongly advised the only way to make a difference is to get involved with an organization that aligns with your beliefs and from there, be an activist.  She echoed that we make the best beef possible and it is just as much our job as it is hers to deliver that message to the consumers.  She explained the focal point of her job is to reach out to consumers and educate them on the benefits of eating beef. She also elaborated on successful campaigns the SDBIC has spearheaded including The Build Your Base with Beef, a comprehensive sports nutrition program.   This program provides a toolkit for young athletes and their families that contains ready-to-use material as well as resources that lead to overall success towards a healthful lifestyle through a collaborative partnership between the South Dakota Beef Industry Council and Sanford Health.
 
“This program just continues to grow, it is currently in 27 school districts across South Dakota and next year it will cross over into five other states,” Geppert explained.
 
“We have coaches report back with great success, stating that even after that sports season ends, kids are still making healthy choices because of what they’ve learned, they’re still choosing things like beef jerky for a snack.  Then we know we are making a direct impact on these youth.”
 
“Another thing we are so proud of is that by the SDBIC providing sit down, beef meals for these teams after a game, they will often invite and share that nutritious meal with the opposing team.  That shows us we are also having an indirect impact on these kids.”
 
While pieces that each speaker presented that night touched on different segments of the cattle industry, as the evening drew to a close it became clear each individual plays a significant role in the cattle industry.  Be it through market analysis and education, from discussion and policy implementation to consumer outreach and awareness, all three key presenters delivered the same powerful message — without cattle producer’s involvement there won’t be a solution to poor market conditions.
 
Moving forward, the Foothills Cattle Producers hope to continue interest and momentum in their mission, hosting more events, open forums and delivering clear messages to consumers on the importance of where their food comes from.  The group encourages interested parties to keep close watch on their Facebook page, where they can also listen to segments from the Roundup meeting itself, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/foothillscattleproducers