Photo by: Andy Cross, The Denver Post
This past weekend, Max Siegelbaum of The Denver Post wrote this article about the economic impact the National Western has on the cattle industry. To have an article of this caliber written about the NWSS is a true honor and we appreciate all The Denver Post does for our organization.
In a yard full of cattle with colorful names, Trump Train stood out.
His caretaker, Lee Whyte, wore a hat bearing the bull calf’s name and stood near his pen. “I’ll buy that hat for 50 bucks,” an admirer said to Whyte, who graciously declined. “I’ve had people come up to me trying to buy this all day,” he said.
Trump Train was named shortly after the election because “it’s got a ring to it, but there’s no affiliation of any sort,” said Matt Lautner, his owner. The blonde, 84-pound Charolais Chianina cross calf drew a following amid National Western Stock Show crowds. People surrounded his pen to snap photos of him, likely because of his provocative name.
But Trump Train wasn’t driven almost 700 miles from Lautner’s ranch in Adel, Iowa, to be in the background of ranchers’ selfies.
He was there for business. Specifically, the business of spreading his genes.
Purebred cattle are the bedrock of the American beef industry, which is now worth about $60 billion a year. Genetically superior semen from Trump Train and other bulls will impregnate cows across the United States to improve the quality of the beef Americans find in supermarkets and restaurants.
For cattle breeders, the National Western Stock Show show in Denver is the biggest event of the year, with more than $10 million in cattle, semen and embryos changing hands over a 16-day period. It’s also an annual chance for the men and women of the cattle industry to meet in one place and strengthen the bonds that fuel America’s largest agricultural industry — and this year,to parse the uncertain future of their industry.
Inside the stock show events hall, vendors sell lawn ornaments, embroidered cowboy boots and tasseled leather vests. Guests melt into massage chairs and get their hair coiffed by stylists. Old West imagery is found on everything — decorative signs, wind chimes, rugs.
Just 400 feet from the main building, the stockyards are deafening and hectic. Hundreds of portable gas generators and hair dryers used to fluff the cattle run at once. The roughly 20-acre yard is divided into small pens where ranchers from small towns and cities across the U.S. show off their animals.
Here, industrial competition is playfully waged through elaborate branding and merchandise.
Cattle are given names like Cool Cat, Knock Out, No Guts No Glory and McGregor (after mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor). Breeders display banners listing their animal’s measurements.The pens, lined in brightly colored wood chips, are immaculate.
A black bull named Honest Abe has his own hype man, an Abraham Lincoln impersonator hired by his farm.
Little Jimmy, a coffee-colored Akaushi bull stands nearby. He was trucked to the stock show from Harwood, Texas, by Jordan Beeman of HeartBrand Beef to promote the Japanese breed of cattle. Beeman has a vacuum-sealed slab of meat ready for inspection.
“The whole country comes here,” Beeman said, “you can have so much more of a presence.”
Delegations from countries like Mexico, Canada and Japan wander the stockyards, buying semen and embryos, and picking up tips from producers like Beeman. The deals and connections are made in person. the livestock and genetic material are shipped later.
Breeders bring their cattle to Denver to entice customers into purchasing frozen semen. The buyers look for musculature and form, characteristics that hint at what they may get in the future if they buy the semen and use it to impregnate their heifers.
Late in the day, hundreds of people fill a conference room in the Renaissance Denver Stapleton Hotel for an auction of cattle, and frozen embryos and semen.
In the center of the room, an ice sculpture of a cow towers above a busy bar. The name of the event, “Embryos on Snow,” is carved into its body. The room has a faint smell of livestock.
The auction has the energy and intensity of a Wall Street trading floor. Businessmen, some wearing cowboy hats and pristine suits, talk animatedly into their phones while a motor-mouthed auctioneer shouts prices at the crowd. Embryos go for up to $7,900. Partial ownership of one bull named Loaded Up sells for $240,000.
In total, $1.9 million worth of frozen genetic material and live cattle is sold at the event, according to organizer Christy Collins, who runs a livestock promotion company. The celebration and energy of the stock show belies the fact the cattle industry has had a turbulent decade.
A long drought that started in the early 2000s and abated in 2012 shrunk production in the southern plains, home to many ranches. As feed prices grew, beef producers were forced to liquidate their stock. Consumer prices dropped dramatically.
“Currently it’s a tough time in the market. This drought came so fast, economists didn’t expect prices to drop as fast as they did,” said Marshall Ernst, senior director of livestock for the National Western. Ernest also runs Ernst Herefords, a ranch in Windsor, about an hour north of Denver. “There’s no place to hide. Our input cost continues to rise: cost of machinery, cost of parts. Rural families are really feeling it now.”
As the drought eased, cattle producers began growing their stock. Now, as those cattle have come into maturity and are entering feedlots and the market at large, there has been another dip in cattle prices.
Producers could be in for further change if President Donald Trump follows through on his campaign promises.
During his campaign, Trump spoke of scrapping industrial regulations from multiple sectors. He also mentioned allowing industries to use federally protected public land, which in some states would allow some ranchers to substantially expand their cattle operations.
Under President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Association established the Waters of the United States rule, which extended federal protection to smaller bodies of water like streams, wetlands and ponds. The rule is meant to protect groundwater from things like livestock contamination, mostly from cattle excrement. Cattle producers say it places unfair hurdles in their ability to run their ranches.
“The government needs to listen a little bit more instead of reacting as much as they have,” said Bubba Bain, executive director of the American Akaushi Association, an organization that promotes Akaushi cattle, a breed that produces high quality, finely marbled beef commonly known as Waygu. “Ranchers and farmers are the best stewards that anyone can ask for the land. They can do a lot better job than people sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C.”
The cattle industry may have a powerful ally in Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he sued the EPA on multiple occasions, recently as part of a 19-state request for an injunction of the Waters of the United States rule. The court issued a stay in enforcement and the case is ongoing. During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Pruitt said the EPA needs to clarify the rule so enforcement can be fairly enacted.
Industry groups, including the Centennial-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have endorsed Pruitt. “As Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Mr. Pruitt led the fight to bring common sense back to environmental regulation and he was an unrivaled defender of private property rights,” National Cattlemen’s president Tracy Brunner wrote in an open letter.
Still, some cattlemen and women are worried Trump’s isolationist trade policies will hinder the growth of their business. Every year, American beef producers export billions of dollars in meat to countries like Japan, Mexico and Canada. China, a frequent target of Trump’s ire, is a potential new market for U.S. beef.
On Thursday, Trump announced the nomination of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture. A former veterinarian, Perdue, 70, comes from a family of farmers and was involved in grain trading and trucking. Unlike Pruitt, his career has not been marked by open hostility to the federal agency he will likely run. As governor, Perdue opened an office in Georgia to serve as the state’s focal point for international trade, experience he could bring to the agency.
“As world incomes grow, there’s going to be more people who can buy beef,” said Chris Hurt, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. American consumption of beef has dipped in recent years, Hurt explained, so it’s vital for producers to look beyond U.S. borders.
“As an organization, we support the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Colorado Livestock Association CEO Bill Hammerich said, “Long term, it is going to be beneficial to the industry and probably from an immediate sense, we’re probably going to see a 4 percent increase in cattle inventories.”
Meat from those cattle needs a place to go, Hammerich said.
For cattle ranchers, political, economic and environmental turbulence is part of the job.
“We’re just happy to break even,” said Kim DeJong. She drove her hulking 1,350-pound black bull, DJ on Point, in a trailer from her ranch in Kennebec, S.D., and was selling his semen for $30 a batch.
“He’s super tame, he loves to be scratched,” she said.
DeJong spent her time at the stock show tending to her bull and chatting with other beef producers. They felt encouraged the few names the Trump administration has floated for positions in the Department of Agriculture have experience in agriculture, and they are hopeful they may have a stronger voice in the White House.
“We don’t have a lot of say in politics,” DeJong said, “and yet, we feed the world.”
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 9:28 a.m. Jan 23, 2017, to clarify that China is a potential new market for U.S. beef exports.