The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is focusing its full attention on the rapidly changing COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on the U.S. cattle industry. The top priority being ongoing operation of the full beef supply chain, NCBA vice president of government affairs Ethan Lane said in a call with media on Wednesday, March 18.
“As has been noted by the White House and others in their response to the unfolding crisis, food security is a top priority, and our role in that is essential to ensuring that grocery store shelves stay full of beef for American consumers,” Lane says.
To achieve this, regulatory certainty is needed throughout the value chain to continue operations. Not only from the end of the supply chain, from the packing plant to the retail sector, but all the way through the value chain to the feedlot and back to the cow/calf producer, including transportation inputs and the moving pieces that help get the product from “gate to plate” he says.
Over the last week, the NCBA has been in contact with decisionmakers throughout the federal government to ensure that producers will be able to continue to operation in this environment.
“We're pleased that we have heard a lot of positive feedback from the administration on the steps they are continuing in order to ensure that that value chain that supply chain stays operational,” Lane says. “We are pleased to hear that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking steps to ensure that inspectors from FSIS, APHIS, AMS, and others will be able to continue their important work to keep the supply chain moving.”
The group is working with these agencies as they develop or update their pandemic response plans and is in communication with them as they make decisions about how to address what will happen should those workforces have positive cases of coronavirus.
It is also in communication with the Department of Transportation and was happy to hear about the emergency waiver to the hours of service for commercial trucks, including those that are delivering food products.
Lane also took a moment to address the price fluctuation seen across the markets.
“Obviously we've seen quite a bit of price fluctuation across all, all of the U.S. financial markets, this is this is not an issue that is exclusive to the U.S. cattle markets, but our producers have been hit extremely hard on the live cattle side in this equation, and that is something we continue to stay heavily engaged in, in order to ensure that we are we are keeping those producers viable through this through this crisis,” he says.
The NCBA has sent a letter to the White House and Vice President Pence in his capacity as chairman of the COVID-19 taskforce that encapsulates the needs of the industry in this ongoing situation. Aside from continued day-to-day operation for all producers, a key point of concern for the ability of the 22,000 western producers to continue to operate on western federal lands, to ensure there won’t be a disruption as it gets into turnout season with those resources.
Lane says the group has also sent a letter regarding the financial needs of producers as Capitol Hill asseses coronavirus stimulus packages.
“We have asked that they look for additional avenues for flexibility in order to reduce the burden on our producers from existing loans and interest requirements, as well as access to new funds and capital at low or no interest rate to ensure that they have the operating resources necessary to sustain their operations during this during this disruption,” he says.
In terms of H2-A labor and a shortage of farm labor, Lane says labor was an issue before the virus hit. Stress like this shines a brighter light on what was already challenging to the industry, and farm labor was one of them. The pricing issue is also something that was a challenging issue before this crisis.
“We're hearing from our producers across the country that the spread between the box beef price and live cattle price doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. We're seeing a lot of increase in price in the box beef side, and we're seeing pictures on the news of cleaned out store shelves,” Lane says. “We know this is a commodity that is that is in high demand at the moment and the prices that we're seeing on the boards on the live cattle side are not reflective of that. And that is an issue we’re continuing to monitor.
“There's been an ongoing issue with adequate price discovery on that on that cash side to give us an accurate picture of what's going on in the marketplace and certainly we're seeing that play out in pretty stark relief this week in what we're seeing on the board,” he continued.
The NCBA has engaged with packers in the last few days to talk about that disparity and asked them to bid aggressively in the cash market and to key those bids off of what they’re seeing in on the cut out price, Lane says.
In terms of export effects and getting exports out amid a global pandemic, as far as Lane understands, the closure of the Canada/U.S. border will not disrupt cross-border trade in the beef industry, as it stood at the time of the media call. The group had also spent time checking in with trading partners in other areas of the world and he did not foresee issues on that front. Though he noted that it is a rapidly changing situation and information changes almost daily if not faster.
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