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“A lot of people don’t seem to understand what cattle mean to this state,” said Krist Wollum, a Porter, Minn., rancher and president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association. (Erin Brown/Grand Vale Creative)

Minnesota cattle industry may feel 'unappreciated,' but it's important to state's agriculture

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The general public knows Minnesota for lakes and trees, hockey and Paul Bunyan, and, especially in football season, the Vikings. In agricultural circles, Minnesota is known for corn, soybeans, hogs and, especially around Thanksgiving, turkeys.

But cattle, though often overshadowed, play an important role in Minnesota, state cattle industry officials say.

"I think sometimes we're unappreciated. A lot of people don't seem to understand what cattle mean to this state," said Krist Wollum, a Porter, Minn., rancher and president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

Wollum was among the roughly 250 people who attended the state cattlemen's association annual meeting Dec. 1-2, held this year in Bloomington, Minn.

Bloomington is part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area. Of Minnesota's roughly 5.5 million residents, about 3.5 million live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area. With two-thirds of the state's population concentrated in a single metro area, urban residents' priorities can outweigh those of rural and ag residents — something that occurs less often in South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana, where there is no dominant metro area, Minnesota cattle industry leaders say.

"It's a little harder for us because of state legislation and regulation," said Glen Graff, a Sanborn, Minn., beef producer and the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association legislative chairman.

An example: Minnesota farmers are fighting state legislation that restricts mowing in ditches on state-owned land. Ag producers say the legislation hurts the quality of their hay; many urban residents and their legislators are concerned with how haying affects vegetation and wildlife.

"They just don't get our side of it," Graff said.

He and other Minnesota cattle producers say many urban residents also don't seem to understand the geographic breadth and economic importance of the state's cattle industry.

Both cow-calf operations and feedlots are found across the state. The former are more common in northern Minnesota, where much of the land is better suited to hay and pasture than crops. Feedlots are most prevalent in the southern part of the state, where cattle producers often have closer access to locally grown corn and other high-quality feed.

Daniel Lofthus certainly realizes the cattle industry's role in the state. Lofthus, state statistician for the Minnesota field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, staffed an informational booth at the cattlemen's annual meeting.

According to his numbers:

• Minnesota had 2.4 million cows and calves on Jan. 1, 2017. That number has fluctuated slightly in recent years but is the same as it was in 2008.

• About one in three Minnesota farming operations had cattle and calves, beef or dairy or both, in 2012, the last year for which reliable statewide USDA figures are available.

• Cattle and calves generated $1.8 billion in receipts in Minnesota in 2016, trailing, respectively, corn, oilseeds (predominantly soybeans) and hogs.

"So you can see that cattle are pretty important in Minnesota," Lofthus said.

Minnesota ranchers say their industry could become even more important.

Twenty-five percent of Minnesota's 51.2 million acres are owned by government units, with most of the government-owned land in the northern part of the state, according to the Minnesota House Research Department website.

Expanded haying and grazing opportunities on that government-owned land would allow Minnesota cattle numbers to increase, ranchers say. They also say the state's demographics and political climate aren't conducive to that.

In any case, the short-term outlook for Minnesota's cattle industry is positive.

Most state cattle producers should finish in the black in 2017, Minnesota ranchers say. Cattle prices held up relatively well this fall, helping cow-calf operations in particular. And the state generally avoided drought this summer, allowing Minnesota ranchers to avoid the high cost of buying feed.

Many benefits

The state cattlemen's association annual meeting helps attendees in multiple ways, cattle producers say.

"Learning more about the regulatory and legislative issues, then deciding as an association how to respond — we do that here at the annual meeting," Wollum said.

This year, for example, the association passed a resolution seeking more public information on the cost savings and safety benefits that state government derives from farmers mowing ditches.

The annual meeting also updated producers on important trends and refreshed their understanding of marketing, record-keeping and other fundamentals.

For instance, Alfredo DiCostanzo, University of Minnesota professor of beef cattle nutrition and management, discussed backgrounding.

He began with the basics — "Backgrounding is an opportunity to stage cattle to enhance value — and went on to examine when and how producers can do so successfully.

The annual meeting helped on a human level, too. Whether through professional networking or making new friends and reconnecting with old ones, members of the Minnesota cattle industry developed closer, stronger ties.

"There are a lot of reasons to be here. The camaraderie is one of them," said Carl Sackreiter, a Pine Island, Minn., cattle producer.

Graff has attended the annual meeting for 30 years.

"I know most of the people here. It's like coming to a family reunion," he said.

For many Minnesota cattle producers, the annual meeting reinforces a long, strong commitment to their occupation and way of life.

Graff, 63, first said he's been involved in the cattle industry for 45 years. Then he said, "No, let me correct that. It's 63 years. I live on the Century family farm."

A Century farm is one that has been owned continuously by the same family for at least 100 years.

National presence

Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association officials say their group works closely and effectively with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association — and the NCBA was well represented at the Bloomington event.

Here's a sampling of what NCBA officials said:

Ryan Goodman, director of grassroots advocacy and spokesperson development, talked about the importance of ranchers engaging the general public. "Invite them to your ranch. Show them what you do," he said.

Kent Bacus, director of international trade and market access, discussed the bright outlook for U.S. beef exports, especially to China, which he called a "very promising" market.

Jesse Fulton, associate director of producer education, dug into the National Beef Quality Audit Report, which notes among other things, that many consumers still have concerns about food safety. Asked by Agweek what ranchers can do change that, he recommended, "Tell consumers you and your family are eating that beef, too."

Kevin Kester, president-elect, talked about the promising Chinese market, too. Minnesota ranchers will benefit from rising U.S. beef exports to China, he said.

The fifth-generation California rancher, born and raised in Monterey County (between Los Angeles and San Francisco), smiled when asked if he thinks the Minnesota cattle industry sometimes is overshadowed and underappreciated.

"Being from California and being a rancher, that's something I understand, he said.

Then, turning serious, Kester added, "Cattle are important in Minnesota. They're important in our country. As ranchers and an industry, we need to keep telling people that."

The 2018 Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association annual meeting will be held in Alexandria, Minn.

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