By Codi Vallery-Mills
Every time a rancher sells cattle a one-dollar checkoff fee is automatically collected. Those monies are divided in half between the national beef checkoff program overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the state’s own private beef checkoff program. Checkoff funds are to be used for beef promotion, research and education, according to USDA.
One cattle producer group is seeking to fundamentally reform the beef checkoff program to make it accountable to producers. The campaign to alter how checkoff funds are distributed among state and national entities is being led by R-CALF USA. In April of this year, R-CALF USA was granted a preliminary injunction by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in its case against the Montana Beef Council.  The Ninth Circuit’s ruling effectively stopped the Montana Beef Council from receiving checkoff funding.
R-CALF has now identified additional states that meet the same criteria of having a “private entity espousing private speech” with their beef councils and wish to expand the scope of their pleading to include them. Those states include Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
“We are trying to apply the protection that the Montana court gave to Montana producers and the protection is regarding their constitutional right to not be compelled to fund the private speech of a private entity. But in Montana, it did not affect the volume or the amount of checkoff dollars. They remained the same,” Bullard told The Cattle Business Weekly in an Aug. 24 interview. “Montana producers are the only producers, that after 30 years, finally get a choice of where their money goes. Do they want it to stay in state or do they want it to go to the national? If they are satisfied with the operation of their state beef council, they can give their consent to have half of the dollar sent to the state council.”
If a court decides in favor of R-CALF, producers in South Dakota – and the other 12 states named in the case – will have the same decision to make about a consent form. If cattlemen and women would like half of their checkoff dollar to stay in state, Bullard says producers will need to fill out an annual consent application, provided by the state beef council, to have that money earmarked.
Jodie Anderson, Executive Director with the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association has questions about the consent form and exactly how much money the Montana Beef Council is currently getting with the injunction in place.
“It’s our understanding that, to date, the consent form has been returned by fewer than 3,000 producers in Montana, which equates to slightly less than 25 percent of the state’s estimated 11,845 producers (according to USDA NASS census of ag).  This year, the Montana Beef Council has received less than $200,000 for checkoff programs, down from the approximately $850,000 that would represent half of the total checkoff collected in Montana.  While gaining consent makes a nice soundbite for R-CALF, in actual practice it’s severely restricting local decision making and forcing more checkoff dollars from Montana to be spent on national programs,” Anderson says. “As a result of the court’s action, the Montana Beef Council’s funding is severely restricted by the requirement to gather consent forms.  This begs the question – who is receiving the extra funding that would normally be spent on programs identified and approved by the Montana Beef Council’s Board of Directors?”

How are funds used?
Executive Director of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council, Suzy Geppert, can’t comment on the recent injunction that now involves the South Dakota Beef Industry Council (SDBIC), but she can comment on what the council’s operating dollars are being spent on.
Every year the SDBIC hosts and supports numerous beef promotion events and programs. It does so with the goal of building beef demand and getting accurate beef information to consumers Geppert says. This summer the SDBIC placed efforts into the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the Pro-Am golf tournament in Sioux Falls and the “Build a Better Base with Beef” health and nutrition program.
Geppert talks about each. “Being the official meat of the Sturgis Really puts beef in front of half a million consumers. With the golf tournament in September, they are expecting up to 18,000 people. We are taking over one of the holes and will be grilling sandwiches and giving out beef samples. There will also be a designated beef caddy there who will talk about beef and cattle production with golfers. The new Build Your Base with Beef program is a great collaboration of ranchers, coaches, nutritionists and scientists. That is what I love about the beef council and what the checkoff can bring to consumers.”
The above-named beef promotion efforts are just a small part of what the beef council board and staff do throughout the year Geppert says. The SDBIC has eight organizations represented on its board of directors. Each of those organizations has three representatives. It sounds like a lot of people to get together to come to a consensus on anything but Geppert says it works really well.
“Anytime you can have that – different organizations coming together to caucus – you have a stronger organization. Everyone on the board is a volunteer and they do a great job. I am really proud of the work and time they are giving to promote beef,” Geppert says.
The South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association stands by the SD Beef Industry Council as the only organization to collect and distribute the checkoff in South Dakota.  “We support the efforts of the South Dakota beef producers who make up the SDBIC Board of Directors and believe they are utilizing our checkoff wisely to educate consumers and promote beef,” Anderson says.

The Court Case
There has been a concern with some cattle producers about the legal action and the lawyers that R-CALF is said to be using for its injunction. Some have claimed that R-CALF is using the same lawyers as PETA and HSUS.
Bullard gave comment to this in the Aug. 24 interview.
“Yes, we work with Organization for Competitive Markets on a variety of issues including market structure issues and country-of-origin labeling. We know that they do work with HSUS. We do not work with HSUS. We do use attorneys from the Public Justice Organization. We sought them out in looking for attorneys who had the capability in arguing successful constitutional cases. There are not a lot of constitutional lawyers that had the expertise that David Muraskin had. And again, HSUS or PETA were not involved in any way or any other animal rights group. This is exclusively an R-CALF USA action and we are acting upon the member-developed policies of our members.”
David Muraskin’s bio on the Public Justice website notes he is a Food Project Attorney and in addition to his work with R-CALF USA, “he is lead counsel in two of the “Ag-gag” cases—a series of challenges to state laws that penalize investigations of factory farming. In that role, he secured the first appellate court decision holding that those investigations are protected by the First Amendment. And, he is counsel in two antitrust cases on behalf of poultry growers against Tyson and other integrators.”
R-CALF is currently awaiting the government’s (USDA) response to the pleading. The court will then schedule the advancement of the case.
In the meantime, Bullard says the 13 additional state beef councils that are listed in the pleading will operate as usual. “They are under no court orders. The only state that is right now is the state of Montana, and they must comply with the preliminary injunction we received. So, the other beef councils can continue operating as they do until a final decision is made in this case.”

(Editor’s Note: The Office of Public Affairs with the Department of Justice was asked to comment on this case and they declined to comment.)