Livestock needs tomorrow’s solutions

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Two fact-laden summer reports on animal agriculture nearly mirror each other on the woe faced by many American dairy, cattle and hog producers.
Mirror in that both use similar language to describe the current state of livestock economics; mirror in that their prescriptions to save producers from their low-cost-at-any-cost selves are perfectly opposite.
Illinois FB. The first report comes courtesy of the Illinois Farm Bureau, the ramrod behind a $600,000, three-year effort by the state’s major commodity organizations to halt the decades-long exodus of livestock from the Prairie State.
It’s a tall order for the boys from Illinois who worry that if the next 20 years are like the last 20 years there will be little or no meat and milk produced there.
They have reason to worry.
Since 1982, according to a June report from Market Solutions LLC to the Illinois group, state hog and beef numbers have fallen 33 percent while dairy cow numbers have plunged 44 percent.
Two punches. If the emigration continues, notes the report, the state and its farmers can expect two hard punches.
First, losing more livestock means less jobs, less economic activity and less tax revenue.
Currently, Illinois livestock and its attendant industries annually “generate more than $11 billion in economic activity,” “hundreds of millions in tax revenues” and 60,000 jobs.
Second, livestock eat corn and soybeans; less livestock eat less corn and soybeans.
Market Solutions estimates that local animals now consume about 118 million bushels of corn and the equivalent of 31 million bushels of soybeans.
Both figures are only two-thirds of 1992 feed consumption.
Moreover, those unused bushels need to find a home somewhere – be it North Carolina or southern China – and that somewhere costs Illinois farmers.
Walking on. None of these facts are new to anyone in Midwestern livestock production.
Nearly every big corn-soybean state – including Iowa, Indiana and Missouri – has witnessed their cattle, hogs and dairy herds slowly walk to low-cost, corporate-styled integrators in Oklahoma, North Carolina and California.
Solutions. Also not new are the solutions offered the Illinoisans by Market Solutions.
Most simply polish yesterday’s leather with yesterday’s brush: more capital (more debt) to adapt to “changing business realities;” small- and medium-sized producers need to “adopt business management systems now available to larger producers” (more integration); and better, bigger contract production.
If that sounds like the exact recipe that began and now fuels the push of meat and milk producers out of Illinois and surrounding states, it is.
The only change in this cookbook’s newest edition is the proportion of ingredients: more debt, more integration, more concentration.
Change? But if the recipe doesn’t change, how can the results – less Illinois livestock – change?
It won’t, writes John Hodges of the European Association of Animal Production, in a thought-provoking paper presented in a late July gathering of American animal scientists in St. Louis.
After all, writes Hodges, “(T)he pursuit of cheap food has been the prime strategy of animal and agricultural scientists in Western society” for decades. But this laser-like focus – “of biosciences, management systems … scale … increased capitalization, reduced labor, and the relocation of production sites nationally and internationally” – coupled with science’s “powerful” alliance to business, has created an animal agriculture that “is unsustainable in terms of biological resources, the environment (and) the quality of human life. …”
The good farmers of Illinois have said exactly that for 20 years by leaving animal agriculture.
And, Hodges adds, more “intensification, capitalization and specialization,” won’t change a thing. What’s needed, he argues, is a deeper examination of “(a)lternatives (that) are often dismissed as inefficient and unrealistic: … human health, food safety, gustatory food quality, animal welfare and the quality of rural life (that) challenges the monolithic dominance of the cheap food movement.”
‘Hidden costs.’ In short, Hodges suggests, today’s cheap food is rife with hidden costs to “citizens, producers, animals, and the environment.”
Investing more money and more lives in those hidden costs – rather than exposing them – only adds to the problem.
If Illinois’ ag leaders want to lead Illinois and U.S. farmers into a brighter tomorrow, they should take a hint from Hodges: Look to tomorrow, not at yesterday.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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