Ranchers, cattle auctions face headwinds despite soaring meat prices | Surroundings – Low Calorie Diets Tips

MADRAS — At the Jefferson County cattle auction house, a group of mostly men in work jeans and plaid shirts quietly bid on cattle while an auctioneer prompted the crowd to bid higher. As each cow disappears behind a large wooden door, the auctioneer declares the final bid before another cow is herded forward for another sale.

The scene, reminiscent of days gone by, is becoming increasingly rare in Oregon, where there is only a single auction house in central state. Last year, two other cattle auctions in the area closed, one in Shasta County, California and the other in Woodburn in the Willamette Valley.

The closure of cattle auctions in Oregon and across the country reflects a change in the rural landscape as farms convert to subdivisions and large stockyards become exclusive private hunting ranches. Meanwhile, US producers now rely heavily on Brazil, Canada, Australia and other beef import nations to produce hamburger meat.

“Close shipyards. More and more people are getting out of this business, and it’s scary,” said Trent Stewart, president and occasional auctioneer of the Central Oregon Livestock Auction. “It’s a food security issue.”

As the number of stockyards dwindles, central Oregon’s cow herds have also shrunk in recent years, meaning less business for the Jefferson County auction yard.

“We are in the commission business. When[a rancher]goes out of business, I hate it,” Stewart said. “They never bring their calves back. Your cows will be harvested and the offspring numbers will never come back.”

Today, the Central Oregon Livestock Auction sells about 35,000 head of cattle, compared to nearly 50,000 head in the early 2000’s. That number is well below the 100,000 cattle sold at auctions in central Oregon in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of these auctions were conducted at a Redmond auction yard that closed in the 1980s.

The downtrend has leveled off in recent years, but Stewart worries new headwinds will continue to erode the industry.

Among the biggest challenges are drought and climate change, which have sent hay and grain production into a tailspin. Hay costs about $350 a ton today, Stewart said, double what it was two years ago. Food has become so scarce that sometimes it is not available at any price. Drought is only part of the problem. Rising fuel and fertilizer prices are making hay more expensive to grow.

“Cattle ranching is brutal. The general American public doesn’t know how hard it is,” Stewart said. “It’s poverty to be in the ranching business.”

The high costs have forced ranchers to cut back their herds and bankrupt producers. Cattle owner Kristina Gomes says she is no longer breaking even.

“You ride the highs and survive the lows. It’s pretty low right now,” said Gomes, who also works as a clerk at the auction yard. “The price of hay has skyrocketed and we can’t afford it.”

The answer for many ranchers is downsizing. JoHanna Symons is among the ranchers in central Oregon who are reducing their livestock. She now has a few hundred head of cattle, down from several thousand a year ago.

“A lot of people have liquidated their suckler herds,” said Symons, co-owner of Symons Beef Co. “The number of cattle available for slaughter has gone down because a lot of suckler cows came into the market and ended up in a meat processing plant.”

The cost of grazing cattle on private land is also increasing, cow calf producer Bobbi Aldrich said. She grazes around 280 animals in the Paulina area and says grazing costs have increased from $25 per capita per month to nearly $50 per capita in recent years.

“Soil is a hot commodity,” Aldrich said. “They charge more because city people pay more if they just have a few cows. Also, the cost of maintaining the land is increasing. The fees are astronomical.”

Aldrich’s best hope is to break even until the cost of doing business comes down or producers get paid more for cattle. Until then, raising cows is an expensive hobby.

“We’ve lost money on our calves for the past three years,” she said. It’s currently a losing proposition. We sometimes ask ourselves: Why do we keep doing this?”

Aldrich and her husband Trevor make up for the losses with part-time jobs. They haul cattle and hay for others. They also work at the auction yard – Bobbi runs the cafe and Trevor works at the stockyard. They continue to raise cattle for the lifestyle.

“At the end of the day you have a love and a passion for it,” she said. “If we don’t do that, what would we do? We diversify our income to make it work, hoping it will come back and livestock prices will go up.”

Auction sales have been up lately, but not enough to offset the high cost of doing business. Beef hoof prices at this year’s auction are up about 20% compared to two years ago.

Ranchers say the higher prices being paid at stockyards aren’t the reason steaks and ground beef are soaring at the grocery store. Those costs are blamed on four major conglomerates that control up to 85% of the pork, beef and poultry market.

In December, the White House indicted the so-called “Big Four” meat packers — Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef Packing — for using their market power to raise prices and underpay farmers while amassing record profits . Their corporate power has allowed them to eliminate competitors and control prices.

US Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is part of a group of lawmakers pushing for legislation to level the playing field and shift market advantages back to cattle producers.

“The market is unfairly tilted to benefit a small handful of meatpackers, and that artificially inflates beef prices at the checkout while penalizing the Oregon family ranchers,” Wyden said in an email.

Wyden said his bipartisan bill would restore market opportunities that would allow Oregon ranchers to compete in a fair market by adjusting pricing mechanisms to improve transparency and competition.

Stewart of the Auction Court hopes the law changes will benefit cattle producers and said cattle breeders are looking forward to a profitable year.

“We’re typically looking at nine years down or break even and one year up,” he said. “It’s completely out of whack.”

Stewart’s recommendation to the industry is to build more meatpacking plants to create competition, including smaller, local packers. Jefferson County farmers could also benefit from changes in regulations. Environmental lawsuits have paralyzed his industry and water rights have always been problematic, he said. Stewart adds that the region needs to focus less on housing and golf course development and more on bringing water to farmers in need.

“We need to be able to have some water in order for us to grow our food,” Stewart said. “We all eat. We don’t have to depend on a foreign country to feed us.”

If changes aren’t made and the ranchers can’t make a profit or even break even to stay in business, Stewart worries his own cattle auction could end up like Shasta’s and Woodburn’s auctions.

“We are at a breaking point now. We have to keep 35,000 cattle just to stay in business,” Stewart said. “With the extreme development we are having now, there is no limit in the sand. You can just evolve and evolve and evolve. We need to moderate our food supply and pay attention to that.”

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