Congress finally passed pending free trade agreements (FTA) with Columbia, South Korea and Panama last week. Those agreements mean big money to the U.S. beef industry.

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, annual exports of U.S. beef to South Korea are expected to increase as much as $1.8 billion once the agreement is fully implemented. Implementation of KORUS (the FTA with South Korea) would phase out South Korea's 40% tariff on beef imports over 15 years, with $15 million in tariff benefits for beef in the first year of the agreement alone and about $325 million in tariff reductions annually once fully implemented.

Bill Donald, a Montana rancher and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said this week that cattlemen have a lot to gain when the agreements are fully implemented and a lot to lose every day the pacts are stalled.

"This president wants to create economic wealth and repopulate rural America. Doing anything to stymie free and open trade will do anything but create jobs and opportunities for farmers, ranchers and small businesses," Donald explains. "We support the president's goal to increase exports. We need him to end the five-year delay and sign all three agreements."

Even without the agreements, U.S. beef exports continue to astound. According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), August beef exports set an all-time monthly value record at $514.2 million. Both pork and beef exports are on pace to set new value records in 2011 and to eclipse the $5-billion mark for the first time ever.

"We are very excited about the growth of U.S. beef exports, not only in traditionally strong markets but in emerging destinations as well," says Phil Seng, USMEF president and CEO. "Despite significant trade barriers in Asia, we continue to achieve outstanding success in most of our key markets. And even in Taiwan, where a large decline was predicted, the U.S. industry's efforts with importers, distributors and retailers have helped U.S. beef maintain a strong presence. We have also targeted the hotel and restaurant sectors in growing tourist destinations such as the Middle East, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and those efforts are paying significant dividends."