Animal rights, economic impacts and projections for the beef industry were key issues discussed at the annual Santa Barbara Cattlemen’s Association spring meeting Feb. 18. More than 100 ranchers from Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties were on hand.

The demand for beef is expected to go up this year, particularly in exports, where demand is expected to jump 24 percent. U.S. demand for beef products is expected to go down 4 percent.
That’s partially because of a struggling high-end restaurant market, speaker Bill Dale said.

At the grocery store, however, customers are still choosing beef with regularity, but they’re more likely to opt for a less expensive option like ground beef or chuck rather than a steak.

Cattle ranchers are facing numerous challenges in their industry.
“I think all of us would agree that trying to preserve these ranches, trying to make them profitable and sustainable, so we can pass them on to the next generation, is most important,” said Tom Talbot, president of the statewide Cattlemen’s Association.

Talbot, a veterinarian from Bishop, Calif. who also runs a cow-calf operation, spoke about numerous issues of concern.

“I believe over the next few years, animal welfare is going to dominate our industry,” Talbot said. The Cattlemen have set up a task force that will look at procedures within the industry that might fall under scrutiny.

Momentum from the passage of Proposition 2, animal rights legislation that creates new regulation for the poultry industry intended to prevent animal cruelty, is expected to affect other ag groups as well.

Bud Sloan, a second vice president of the statewide Cattlemen’s Association, said that the Humane Society of the United States, which has sponsored such legislation, is opposed to industry that involves animal products.

“They really would rather see us gone,” Sloan said.” Even though they say to our faces they don’t want to put us out of business, their actions say different things than their mouths.”

An effort should be made to promote the positive animal husbandry practices exercised in the cattle industry, several speakers said.

“We must have zero tolerance for animal abuse,” Sloan said. “And those people that don’t do it, come down on them with the wrath of God.”

Kevin Kester, a cattle rancher from Parkfield (northeast of Paso Robles), spoke about the Country of Origin Labeling Program, which was supposed to start in March, but may be delayed by the Obama administration.

There were hopes that labeling beef with its country of origin would create benefits for U.S. Cattle producers, but Kester says consumer research indicates that will not be the case.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that putting a label, ‘U.S. Beef’ or ‘Made in the USA’ is going to bring a premium in the marketplace,” Kester said. Currently, the U.S. exports $1.4 billion of beef annually to Mexico and about $700 million annually to Canada.

Another economic issue that Kester discussed was the impact that putting thousands of dairy cows into the cattle market may have. Milk producers have asked Congress for stimulus funds because of a recent drop in milk prices, and between 300,000 and 500,000 dairy cows are expected to be sold.

“What’s the hit we’re going to take as cow producers when we go to the sales yard?” Kester asked.

At the conclusion of the meeting, new officers were elected for 2009 before the group broke for a barbecue lunch. The local Cattlemen’s Association will have its next regular meeting in March.