ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - Minnesota often is associated with lakes and trees, corn and soybeans. At this time of year, it's frequently linked to the NFL Vikings.

But cattle are important to the state, too, Minnesota cattle industry officials say.

"We're a big state, and we have cattle across the state. We have a huge amount of cow-calf operations in the northern part of the state, and in southern Minnesota, too. And we have a lot of cattle in Minnesota on feed, as well," in part a reflection of the state's strong grain production, 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 group's annual convention and trade show Dec. 7-8 in Alexandria.

Minnesota had 2.35 million cattle on Jan. 1, 2018, and collectively they'll have roughly a $2 billion economic impact in the state, said Daniel Lofthus, Minnesota state statistician for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About one in three Minnesota farming operations has beef cattle or dairy cattle or both, according to NASS information.

The Minnesota cattle group's members include both cattle and dairy producers.

Minnesota cattle producers face a challenge that their peers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana don't: the presence of a dominant metropolitan area.

Of Minnesota's roughly 5.5 million residents, about 3.5 million live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Statistical Area - and those 3.5 million urban residents often have different priorities than rural residents involved in production agriculture.

"It's very hard to educate some of the people who aren't willing to be educated. So that's a big challenge ahead of us," Wollum said. "But we'll continue to go to the (state) capital as often as we can to visit with legislators and elected officials. We do have a lot of good rural elected officials who are helping us to bridge that gap."

Wollum, asked about profitability in Minnesota's cattle industry, said that for ranchers selling calves "there's been an ebb and flow (with prices). They've been up and down. There have been times they (ranchers) have been able to make some money on their calves, and there have been times it's been a little bit tight."

For operators feeding cattle, "There have been opportunities to hedge profits. It isn't good for the grain side, but it helps with lower feed costs," Wollum said.

National perspective

Jennifer Houston, who attended the Minnesota convention, is 2018 president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. She has worked for 30 years, in various roles, to promote and strengthen the cattle industry.

She said cattle producers in Minnesota - and other states - should do the same.

"I really encourage you to get involved at every level - local, state and national - and let your voice be heard," she said.

Both domestic and foreign demand for U.S. beef is strong, but tariffs, which would make U.S. beef more expensive for foreign consumers, are a concern, Houston said.

Wollum also mentioned the importance of successfully resolving tariff concerns.

"Maybe we're a little biased, but we do a raise a very good product. Now, if we can resolve of these tariff issues and keep our exports going, it would really help those of us in the cattle industry," Wollum said.