I’m going fishing … checkoff style

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Sometimes you just got to shoot the fish in the barrel and take the candy from babies. As a hunter of barrel-trapped fish who always takes candy from babies — that’s right, I’m a journalist — I can spot a carp from any golf course or barstool in any light any day of the week.

Sometimes it’s easier than that. Sometimes all you have to do is follow the numbers. For example, according to 2009 figures compiled by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the “net checkoff spent per person” for beef promotion by the nation’s 45 state beef councils averaged a lean 12 cents.

Twelve cents per person nationwide to promote beef. Golly. Of course the $1-per-head, non-refundable federal checkoff splits its annual millions 50/50 between the states and its national overseer, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

The CBB, in turn, contracts with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to carry out its mission with a corresponding $0.12 or so per person, too. That would make the total beef promotion effort maybe two bits … per person … nationwide.

Golly gee

So, if most state beef councils spend less than a thin nickel per year per person to promote beef in the most populous states (California: 5-cents, Florida and Illinois: 2-cents, New York: 1-cent) and 30- to 100-times more in states with more cows than coyotes (Kansas: 45-cents, Nebraska: 70-cents, South Dakota: $1.23) is the goal of the beef checkoff to convince cattlemen that the checkoff is good or convince consumers that beef is good?

As you ponder that question, here’s another fish to draw down on: Can one red cent — or even 70-cents — spent per person per year have any affect whatsoever on American beef consumption or production?

According to United States Department of Agriculture, no.

On Jan. 1, 1987, one year after the federal beef checkoff began, beef cattle and calves in the U.S. totaled 102.1 million head. One point six billion checkoff dollars and 24 years later, Jan. 1, 2011, total inventory was 92.8 million head, or 9.5 percent lower.

By the numbers

Likewise, the number of U.S. beef operations fell from 1.01 million on Jan. 1, 1987 to 742,000 on Jan. 1, 2011, down 26 percent.

And beef consumption, the whole point of the checkoff? In 1986, U.S. beef retail sales per capita totaled 78.7 pounds. In 2009, retail sales per capita was 60.8 pounds, a 22 percent drop, or about a-pound-per-year slide for over checkoff’s 20-plus years. (2011 numbers are unavailable.)

As such, deciding whether the checkoff has delivered more cattle, more producers or sold more beef at better prices shouldn’t be too hard.

After all, I found the answers so how hard could it be? Very hard, evidently, because at the recently concluded Cattle Industry Convention the most-discussed checkoff topic was a doubling of the $1-per-head fee, not whether the program actually worked.

The checkoff’s chief contractor, the NCBA, did brag at the convention that it would work hard to “eliminate the livestock title” in the 2012 Farm Bill and to permanently kill COOL, country of origin labeling, for all beef sold in the U.S.

The bottom line

Either action, if successful, is counter to any — however meager — effort by the checkoff to improve the bottom line of American cattle ranchers and feeders. As is the NCBA-endorsed Feb. 13 effort by 31 U.S. senators to push the White House to approve rules that would ease American beef imports. (Read the full letter at http://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/upload/Agriculture-Trade-02-14-12-BSE-Letter-with-Nelson.pdf.)

So, even as U.S. cattlemen continue to pay the $1-per-head—and maybe $2-per-head—checkoff , the number of cattle, cattlemen and American beef consumption per capita continue to fall while the checkoff’s key contractor, NCBA, gets wealthier, bigger and works harder against ‘em. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel.

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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