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Fat Cats are really slim survivors

Essay by Chris Frasier

Ranching – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR THE FIRST TIME, there are two cattlemen’s associations in Colorado.

In addition to the 132-year-old Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the recently chartered Colorado Livestock Association has thrown its hat into the ring.

To those who see this as “Fat Cat” ranchers expanding their power base, I have two things to say. First, this metaphor: have you ever seen a fat ranch cat? Cats are at the bottom of the farm animal food chain, and grudgingly scavenge while the dog rides in the pickup and sleeps in the house.

More to the point, a second cattlemen’s association doesn’t double the bovine lobby. In fact, it is a symptom of agriculture’s political weakness.

Gone are the days when western state legislators could expect rural voters to carry them into office. Farm and ranch operators number just one percent nationwide, without any regional majorities. In forming a single, consolidated livestock organization, the CLA is an attempt at preserving what little political capital remains in agriculture.

The need for unity contradicts the common perception of heavily subsidized, powerfully represented ranchers. In reality, all agricultural lobbies combined wouldn’t pay the legal fees of even one national environmental group. And other than rare drought assistance, the cattle industry receives no subsidy payments. Ranchers wouldn’t know what a government check looked like if it showed up in the mailbox.

Cattlemen are spectators in the modernization of agriculture. Poultry and pork growers no longer own the animals in their barns, in most cases, but contract with an outside firm to raise corporate-owned animals. Vertical integration has become the buzzword of modern meat production.

These changes are most evident in the poultry industry, where a handful of national labels own every phase from breeding to slaughter. They also distribute and promote their own brands. The look-a-like chickens in your local meat case are the result. This uniformity requires birth to death coordination, an impossible goal for independent farmers.

Pork producers also lost much of their independence during the 1990s. As in the poultry business, corporate pigs are shuttled through a hog hotel system, where landowners contract facilities and care. Enormous concentrated facilities have resulted, blurring the line between agricultural and industrial land use. Many western states have tightened their environmental regulations, or outlawed these facilities outright.

Only beef resists the trend toward integration. Most ranchers take pride in their independent position, and stubbornly resist cooperative efforts.

In this age of tight product specifications, beef is criticized for its inconsistency. Nearly every chicken is killed at six weeks of age, weighing within a few ounces of every other chicken. Beef carcasses, on the other hand, can vary by over 200 pounds.

Talk to a group of ranchers about improving their product, and they’ll take it personally. Preferences are deeply ingrained, even if the issue is the color of the bull’s hide. Family pride builds strong opinions about the best cattle for each range. Genetic innovation generally leads away from uniformity, with upwards of 50 cattle breeds represented in the nation’s cowherd. At any livestock show, breeds will be on display with weights ranging from 750 pounds to nearly a ton. All this specialization helps color the countryside, but it hurts the goal of a uniform end product.

POLITICAL UNIFORMITY is just as fleeting. Maverick groups of producers have gotten a lot of press for suing Oprah Winfrey and the beef packers, but their efforts haven’t raised popular support. A range war between private and public lands grazers continues to fester. Midwestern farm families may have received full title to free public land three generations ago, but they look down on federal permitees who must pay their way each year, and never receive title to the land they labor on. Groups opposed to public land grazing are quick to exploit this rift.

If cattlemen want to keep their independence from food industrialists, they need to unify. Niche markets must be identified and cattle tailored to that market’s specifications. An example is Yampa Valley Beef, a brand of lean beef in the Steamboat Springs, Colo., area. Customers are assured of high quality, grass-fed meat, while helping local families get a little better price for their cattle. Cattlemen who participate must have their land enrolled in conservation easement protection. This reestablishes the link between community food and its customers, which was lost when food became a commodity.

The ranch cat may be a good metaphor for today’s cattleman. Aloof and untrusting, grouchy, quick to fight and slow to heal, cattlemen are tattered survivors in the New West.

Chris Frasier is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News He lives and ranches in Limon, Colorado.