Cattlemen Missing The Point on Ethanol

By Gary Truitt

The image of the cowboy, proud, self sufficient, standing alone on the western prairie braving the elements, is an image that has inspired people around the world and helped a cigarette company build an empire. While the rugged individualism of the cowboy may be an admirable personal philosophy, it does not make good public policy. One of the most outspoken and harshest critics of the ethanol industry has been the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. NCBA has used its considerable political clout in Washington to actively work against a number of issues that would enable the renewable fuels industry to continue to grow. This self-centered approach has put them at odds with the corn industry, an industry that for decades produced low priced feed, allowing the beef industry to grow and compete with poultry and pork.

During the recent Congressional debate on VEETC (the ethanol tax credit), NCBA supported efforts to eliminate the tax credit. They said they were not in favor of government subsidies for ethanol, ignoring the fact that the subsidy did not go to the ethanol industry but rather goes to the oil industry. When the ethanol industry agreed that VEETC should be phased out, NCBA then joined with a group of liberal lawmakers who tried to prevent the tax credits from being used to build the renewable fuels infrastructure. Ironically this put the cattlemen in bed with the same group of liberals who are in favor of slaughtering one of NCBA's sacred cows: grazing rights on public lands.

Recently I asked Tom Buis, President of Growth Energy, one of the nation’s leading ethanol organizations, why cattlemen were so against ethanol. He said it was because they blamed ethanol for raising the price of corn. “They want to go back to the days when the government set the price of corn, not the market,” Buis said. Back then corn would fall to as low as $1.50 a bushel. The fact that corn farmers could not make a profit at that level never seemed to be an issue of great concern for cattlemen. Anyone with an IQ higher than their shoe size should be able to understand that the recent run-up in corn prices is only due in part to the development of ethanol. If ethanol were to disappear tomorrow, the price of corn would fall but not to the levels of the old days. And, with continued world food demands, corn prices would again be up at current levels or even higher within a decade. Stopping the growth of ethanol is not going to help the cattle industry but will have serious consequences for agriculture, rural America, and the US economy.

What I also find incongruous is that the development and expansion of ethanol has created an entirely new feed source for the cattle industry, one that is cheaper and more nutritious than No. 2 yellow corn. DDGS is a by-product of ethanol production and has been proven to be a very effective and affordable livestock feed. Other nations with sizeable livestock industries are buying US DDGS by the boatload. Yet, NCBA in its zeal to attack ethanol, has missed this point. So as not to be accused of using too broad of a brush to paint this picture, let me say I know many cattle producers and some state livestock organizations that are not opposed to ethanol. They understand that both the feeder and the feed producer need to make a profit in order to survive.

The folks in Denver, however, have missed the point that those in agriculture must work together. Amidst our great diversity, we must find common ground and support each other in an effort protect a sector that is to vital to the US. Having a safe and sustainable meat and milk supply is just as important as having a functioning renewable fuels industry to lessen our dependence on imported oil.

In addition to his rugged individualism, the cowboy is also known for his common sense. A good cowpoke knows to never squat with his spurs on and to always drink up-stream from the herd. It is time for NCBA use a little of the cowboy common sense and come to realize that policies that foster the continued growth of the renewable fuels sector are in the long term interests of both the cattle industry and the US.


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