My Message to South Dakota Cattle Producers: I’m Listening, and I’m Taking Action
By Sen. John Thune
South Dakota producers are some of the hardest-working people I know. The life of a producer may not be easy to imagine for folks who’ve never woken with the sun, tilled the land, mended a fence, or prayed for a rainy forecast. And, for many Americans, the idea of farming and ranching may seem abstract and far away. But, in South Dakota, we see firsthand the important role our farmers and ranchers play in our economy and our way of life.
We have more than 42 million acres of crop and pasture lands across our state. We also have – as we’re sometimes teased about – more than four times as many cattle as people. I’ve always been proud to be from an agriculture state, and I’ve made it a priority in Congress to fight for our farmers and ranchers and the issues that are important to them.
For quite a while now, our producers have faced significant hardships, and the last few years have been especially difficult for cattle producers in South Dakota and across the country. They have faced market uncertainty through the pandemic, disruptions in a highly concentrated meatpacking industry, and now a drought.
This spring, South Dakota experienced higher-than-normal temperatures and a lack of significant rainfall. That may have been ideal for those who love to spend more time in the sun, but for our agriculture producers, it has meant rapidly deteriorating ground conditions.
The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that nearly every acre of land in South Dakota is experiencing drought conditions. These dangerous conditions may quickly result in short hay supplies across the state. Without an adequate forage supply, cattle producers could be forced to cut down their herds. This would be devastating to producers whose operations would likely take years to recover from forced downsizing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can help provide some relief to producers through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). As of March 2021, South Dakota had nearly 1.4 million acres enrolled in the program. In previous drought years, emergency haying and grazing of CRP acres has helped alleviate forage shortages for livestock producers.
I fought for changes in the 2018 farm bill to give USDA more authority to allow emergency CRP haying and grazing, and now I am pushing the USDA to use its authority to help our producers who are in desperate need. I recently urged USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and USDA Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh to release as many additional CRP acres as possible, as soon as possible.
As I mentioned, the current drought is only the latest obstacle for our producers. They are still facing challenges with the low price of livestock. It may come as a surprise to consumers who have seen the price of beef increase at the local grocery store, but the higher price on the shelf doesn’t mean our cattle producers are seeing a fair cut of that profit. The sad truth is, while the cost of meat is going up, most of those profits are being captured by the meatpackers.
The meatpacking industry is highly concentrated – with only four companies controlling more than 80 percent of the U.S. beef processing capacity. That means that our cattle producers have very little power to negotiate a fair price for their cattle. I have a bill that would help reduce producers’ reliance on the major meatpackers by providing resources to establish and expand small meat processing capacity.
There have also been strong concerns from producers and agriculture experts about the possibility of purposeful market manipulation by meatpackers. I share these concerns and have twice asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the issue. I have also called on both the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee, of which I’m a member, to hold hearings and get to the bottom of this.
Thankfully, the Agriculture Committee recently agreed to my request and announced it would hold a hearing this month. I look forward to questioning the witnesses and advocating for increased transparency for ranchers and consumers. I will also continue to press Justice Department and Judiciary Committee leaders to get the answers that our producers deserve.
Our farmers and ranchers work early mornings and long days in the blistering heat and freezing cold to do their part to feed the world and keep South Dakota’s economic engine running. I’m constantly impressed by their strong work ethic, and it inspires me to fight on their behalf in Washington.