Feedlot Council Addresses Industry Concerns
We’ve all heard it… “you have two ears and one mouth, use them proportionately.” That’s exactly what Nebraska Cattlemen (NC) leadership and staff did recently with NC Feedlot Council members from across the state – listened. Over the course of 24 hours, the NC Feedlot Council held two meetings, one in Wisner and one in Cozad, to have targeted conversations with members on labor challenges and cattle markets.
The meetings, led by Joel Weber – Chairman of NC’s Feedlot Council and Stephen Sunderman – Chairman of NC’s Live Cattle Marketing Committee, are a continuation of efforts to address labor concerns, in both feedlots and packing plants, as well as doubling down on the ongoing focus of price discovery and market transparency.
For those who don’t know, the Feedlot Council is one of four councils (Cow-Calf, Farmer-Stockman, Feedlot and Seedstock) that active members choose to enroll in when they become NC members. The Councils provide a forum for peers to discuss mutual concerns and issues. The feedlot Council specifically represents the interest of the feedlot industry, regardless of size.
The initial message we heard regarding labor focused on the need to enhance Technical College and University agriculture programs to better equip students who graduate from those programs with production agriculture skills such as welding, farm equipment operation experience, mechanical knowledge, and more robust business and people management skills. It was noted that while current agriculture programs do a great job on teaching students science, economics, and basic industry knowledge, feedyards compete with allied industry for the best and the brightest – often at the disadvantage of working conditions that must sometimes battle with the environmental elements.
The conversation shifted from workforce training to workforce culture. There was robust conversation about how today’s employee pool has different priorities than previous generations – meaning, while wage levels are important, it’s not the most important consideration when accepting a job. Work-life balance, flexible work schedules and workplace culture are ranked very high on potential employee list of priorities. It was noted that some feedlot council members have success retaining employees by providing a flexible work schedule that allows employees to have cattle of their own, as well rewarding employees who are willing to work holidays and weekends with 1.5x or 2x wages for those work shifts. Immigrant labor and work visas were also discussed. Feedlot Council members agreed on the value of immigrant worker programs such as H2A, but suggested modifications to allow H2A labor to work year-round would improve the program. Similarly, Feedlot Council members were open to work release programs with community correctional facilities, but expressed concern in the ability to include these employees in their necessary insurance programs.
The discussions on price discovery and market transparency began with a review of current packing capacity and a review of potential additional capacity coming online in the next few years. The conversation quickly shifted into market transparency and the renewed call for further granularity in what is reported in through LMR. Specifically, multiple feedlot council members expressed a desire for LMR data to be further sorted into buckets that differentiate formulas that have a premium or discount versus agreements that are weekly weighted averages plus $0.50 or a $1.00. The desire for granularity went further to see separation of formula contracts split out by programs such as NHTC or GAP cattle. Captive supply and its impact on how aggressively packers bid on cash cattle was also expressed as a significant concern. Policy and politics looking to regulate and/or legislate the live cattle market was debated – but what was agreed upon is that there is no agreement among feedlot council members regarding government involvement in cattle markets. Some members believe the price discovery and transparency issues within the cattle market can only be fixed through targeted and specific legislation, like Senator Fischer’s Cattle Market Transparency Act, while some members believe that a shift in leverage is the only way to address current issues in the live cattle market.
After reflecting on the hours of listening and conversation, action items and ideas for solutions were easy to identify. We must continue pursuing immigration reform to help meet the need for skilled labor on farms, feedlots and in packing plants; investigate the insurance hurdles that prevent feedlots from participating in work release programs; and share the concerns of college graduate direct production agriculture skills with appropriate technical college and University staff. Regarding cattle markets, we must continue to work with Senator Fischer on her Cattle Market Transparency Act; explore options regarding how and what is reported through LMR; provide comments to USDA in their recent request for information on how to administer funding to increase packing plant capacity and improve supply chain resiliency.
Members talked. We listened… and will continue to focus on efforts to meet the need and expectations of Nebraska Cattlemen Feedlot Council members. Stay tuned for more opportunities to express concerns and identify solutions to issues within Nebraska’s cattle feeding industry.
Written by: Ashley Kohls, Nebraska Cattlemen Vice President of Government Affairs