Is R-CALF Dead?
— by Lee Pitts
If you read some cattle publications you may be under the impression that R-Calf USA is deader than a can of corned beef. The obituaries for the 7-year-old cattlemen’s organization, largely responsible for keeping the Canadian border closed long enough for ranchers to enjoy their best years ever, have been quite flowery:
• "R-CALF is disintegrating, falling apart at the seams."
• "This has been a hostile take over."
• "The R-CALF name is completely destroyed."
A newspaper in Fort Worth called the battle brewing at R-CALF nothing less than a "range war; Cattlemen against cattlemen." Beef Magazine suggested that R-CALF was on its last legs and Steve Kay, the often quoted publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, said that current events will likely lead to R-CALF’s demise.
A blogger wrote, "The right-wing fundamentalist extremists have taken control of R-CALF and they´ve triple branded the organization as radicals. Bullard is leading the industry to a Johnstown massacre - drink the Kool-aid at your own risk."
No question, R-CALF has experienced trying times lately but we think you will find upon further reflection that R-CALF’s status is much like that of Mark Twain’s when he cabled from London in 1897, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
A Long Time Coming
What’s all the hubbub about? R-CALF’s Exec Bill Bullard told the Digest that things have been leading up to a fight between those who wanted a kinder and gentler R-CALF and those who wanted to continue to be aggressive. "There had always been a small group amongst R-CALF’s Board of Directors that never supported the litigation against the USDA," says Bullard. On the one side you had good and sincere folks who wanted to halt the litigation to stop Canadian mad cows from flowing South because they felt it was a waste of time and money and other efforts should come to the front including putting more effort on COOL. (Although one wonders what more R-CALF could have done on COOL given the cesspool of politics that is Washington D.C.) On the other side you had equally good, strong-willed ranchers who knew it was the Canadian border issue that made R-CALF so popular in the first place and if Canadian cows started flooding across our border a few of them would no doubt be mad cows that could kill American consumers, along with our collective taste for beef. That seems to be a cause worth fighting for, don´t you think?
This debate started about two years ago and came to a head over the 30 month rule. R-CALF was, and still is, fighting the USDA over their proposal to allow cattle and beef from animals over 30 months old into the U.S. This despite an ongoing problem with BSE in Canada in which mad cows born after the feed ban keep popping up. Efforts were made within R-CALF to stop that litigation. One board member even tried to get Bullard fired for his preoccupation with Canadian cows. But it was one action, some consider a traitorous one, that caused the festering issue to burst open for all the world to see. Bullard explains, "The USDA slipped up when they published the proposed 30 month rule. They only included cows and not beef, when they clearly intended to allow in beef from older Canadian cows into this country. In response, R-CALF wrote a letter to the USDA asking for a delayed implementation until the USDA showed their true intentions for Canadian cow beef. We sent the letter on a Sunday," recalls Bullard, "but unbeknownst to us, Chuck Kiker, then R-CALF President, wrote one of his own the next day with the assistance of former USDA officials which basically asked the USDA to ignore the first letter from R-CALF and apologized. This completely thwarted R-CALF’s efforts to delay the implementation of the rule," says Bullard.
It’s not as if Bullard was acting on his own in his fight against the USDA. R-CALF’s policies have always been decided by its members. Last year, those members established policy that instructed the board to "take appropriate action to challenge and stop USDA from allowing the importation of beef products from cattle older than 30 months of age, as well as the importation of live cattle over 30 months of age, from Japan or any other BSE-affected country."
A Trojan Horse
When Bullard said that Kiker’s letter was drafted with the assistance of former USDA officials he was referring to Bill Hawks and Valerie Ragan. These two are part of the consulting firm, AgWorks Solutions, a lobbying group made up of former top USDA officials. These folks were originally hired in early 2006 to help R-CALF navigate the maze of bureaucracy in Washington D.C. It was thought that they would understand the inner workings of Washington and could provide valuable insight. One wonders now if these former USDA officials were a Trojan Horse, establishing a USDA presence within R-CALF to moderate their message.
Kiker’s letter was the fuse that lit the bomb and R-CALF’s Board responded. On February 8, by a close majority vote, R-CALF asked Missouri veterinarian Max Thornsberry, then Vice President, to take over the Presidency. Three weeks into his second term Chuck Kiker was ousted as R-CALF President, but he was not kicked off the Board. No, he took that action himself. The disillusioned R-CALF’ers have suggested that Kiker’s ousting was an illegal action on the part of R-CALF’s board.
The fallout was immediate. Thirteen committee chairmen quit as did Jess Peterson, Government Relations Director in Washington D.C. That kind of a blow would put a dent in any organization but the one resignation that rattled people’s faith was that of one of the founders of R-CALF, its President for the first six years and a man who, when history is written, will be regarded as having helped the independent rancher more than any other single person: Leo McDonnell.
What Would Leo Do?
For the sake of his family and business Leo McDonnell had tried to disentangle himself from R-CALF before. After all, he had traveled constantly for R-CALF for six years while at the same time he and his wife owned and operated the largest and most prestigious bull test in the country: Midland. After his six year presidency Leo was ready to leave. And he’d left it in good shape with 18,000 members and $500,000 in the bank. But the Board could not envision going forward without Leo so they created an eleventh chair, that for the immediate past president. They wouldn’t let him quit.
No question, Leo did not like the fact that Kiker was booted, but in a recent phone conversation Leo said that is not why he quit the Board. "It was for my family." In response to the ruckus R-CALF decided to hold five regional meetings to answer member’s questions. More than 300 people showed up on February 28 in South Dakota and the talk got a little heated about the recent change in leadership. Basically it was a squaring off between the Montana delegation, who supported Kiker and held a more centrist view, versus the South Dakota faction who has always been more vocal and aggressive. At that meeting Leo McDonnell, R-CALF’s patron saint, tried to soothe the boiling waters. "I resigned from the Board for personal reasons," he said. "I did not resign my R-CALF membership. I continue to believe in this organization to accomplish R-CALF’s policy goals. I encourage each of you to do the same. This last year I’ve heard people talking about sides in R-CALF, there is no us and them, only we. The bickering and name calling and petty stuff must stop now, and it must stop here. There is unity in the Board now, so we need to let the Board go forward and lead and lead R-CALF to the next level. We all want the same thing, we just go about it differently. It is one thing to have a passion for this organization, but it is entirely inappropriate to level personal attacks against each other. Just because you think you’re right, doesn’t mean you’re doing the right thing. Every decision made should be based on what is good for the U.S. rancher."
Ah, once again, the voice of reason.
Looking back one wonders if Leo wishes he had not formally resigned for all the commotion it caused because his resignation was unnecessary anyway. Once Kiker became the Past President Leo would no longer sit in the Past President’s seat.
Ever the class act, Leo further explained his position to the Digest. "The differences weren’t so much about subject matter as it was the way you go about things," he said. "They wanted to do things a different way. I was all for building relationships and wanted to work more on trade reform and COOL. But it’s time to let them have the reins. I’m still an R-CALF member. What other group out there doing what R-CALF does?"
Leo sent Max Thornsberry a cordial letter and has gone to Washington on behalf of R-CALF to testify since the big dust up. All this probably never would have happened had Leo still been R-CALF President, but let the man come up for air, for gosh sakes.
R-CALF haters are, no doubt, enjoying all this. They claim that R-CALF lost several of its over sixty affiliates but only one has quit: The Independent Cattlemen´s Association of Texas, a longtime affiliate of both NCBA and R-CALF. The group’s board of directors voted unanimously to leave R-CALF because they did not agree with the use of aggressive litigation to solve cattle issues. Their President Bruce Dopslauf, told a Texas newspaper that R-Calf was "trigger-happy" when it came to suing the government in federal court, whereas Kiker urged negotiation and restraint.
It’s been reported that R-CALF lost 7,000 members as a result of the Texans quitting and while the group has that many members R-CALF never has counted its affiliate’s members as their own, as the NCBA used to do. To be a member of R-CALF you have to join R-CALF. Bullard says that R-CALF’s membership now stands at 15,000, a loss of 3,000 from its high point. R-CALF Vice President Randy Stevenson explains the loss this way: "During the record-breaking fund-raisers of 2005, many families signed up every single member of their family. Now, they’re decided to renew, but only under the ranch name, or only under the name of a single individual."
While some Texas ranchers are disillusioned with R-CALF other groups, like the South Dakota Stock Growers who voted unanimously to continue its affiliation, are happy with the group’s direction. "We’ve experienced great successes in the cattle industry since R-CALF was first created, said SDSGA President Rick Fox. "We look forward to continued success as we work together to achieve fair trade policies and to prevent the U.S. from becoming a dumping ground for the world’s poorest beef."
If you want to read what the R-CALF detractors are saying you can get your fill at swifthorses.com. This web site provide "R-CALF members with a timeline of events that led up to the organization´s current schism." No one has yet claimed credit for the anti-R-CALF site causing one blogger to suggest it was "engineered and fueled by possibly the NCBA, the American Meat Institute, the U.S.D.A., a few disgruntled radical members, or even possibly all of them on the same team."
We don’t suppose its anything quite that villainous. But whoever is responsible for stirring the pot is madder than a rained on rooster. Anyone who enjoys a good cat fight will get a kick out of this site as this entry suggests: "R-LAFF or R-CULT. So good luck and God bless you. Just don´t drink any of the Kool-Aid." An R-CALF supporter countered by calling the dissidents, "naive, uninformed "sheeple" that blindly jumps on a bandwagon without first finding out the facts."
Bullard looks upon these recent travails as growing pains. "We were the new kid on the block and we grew very fast, gaining prominence almost overnight and enjoying explosive success. There are bound to be conflicts from within. It all happened so fast." Bullard also sees some benefit to the gut-wrenching events. "Since January our output far exceeds what we did before. The Board is unified and committed. Before this happened there was a growing level of bureaucracy at R-CALF. It had become too complex. Corrective action was taken and we are forging ahead working aggressively on issues that our members care deeply about."
Another R-CALF founder, Herman Schumacher, has become the Henry Kissinger of the cow business, traveling anywhere to put out the flames of discontent. Says Herman, "Our members have told us they want us to go on and be the voice that they’re so longing for that they haven’t had for many, many years."
Those who would bury R-CALF ought to be careful what they wish for. The recent cleansing means that R-CALF is going back to its roots as Hell-raising cowboys intent on doing the right thing, damn the politics. It’s what made R-CALF so successful in the first place. The people that remain are committed, hardened troopers who will never give up fighting for what they think is best for the American rancher. Their best, and worst, traits are summed up in four words... they are not compromisers.
Meanwhile, Kiker and the others who quit R-CALF did not run to join NCBA. Instead Kiker and several officers who resigned have formed a new group, the United States Cattlemen´s Association. When Leo McDonnell was asked what he thought about the formation of another group he spoke with the same common sense we’ve come to expect from him... "We can use all the squeaky wheels we can get in this business."