By Mike Callicrate
Grade and yield buying used to be called “Grade and Steal” by most cattlemen. Today, it’s called Value-Based Marketing by the big packers and their cheerleaders, like Certified Angus Beef’s (CAB) Miranda Reiman. In her March 4th article, “Value-based cattle marketing dominates”, Reiman attempts to mentally condition Angus breeders and other cattlemen to accept their fate in Big Food’s supply chain where performance enhancing drugs, added flavorings, Pink Slime, various pre-digestion methods, and meat recalls, do more to damage demand than CAB quality can possibly do to help it.
Cattle feeders once knew better than to let the packer decide what their cattle were worth after the hide was removed. It was just plain bad business not to negotiate the price. Economics professor, Dr. John Helmuth once said, “Somewhere between when a calf is born and the steak hits the plate, price has to be discussed”. Not known for their benevolence, the packer, admittedly, always wants to pay the lowest price possible. Giving the packer the ability to solely determine the value was considered foolish.
Those born after 1975 (Miranda Reiman) have likely not participated in a competitive market for fat cattle. By the spring of 1994, the big meat packers proved they had essentially eliminated competition for live (fat) cattle. IBP, following the advice of the Boston Consulting Group, had decided in the late 1970’s that it was more profitable to cooperate than compete with the other very large packers. Together, the biggest packers systematically eliminated most of the smaller independent regional packing companies, drastically reducing competition. Additionally, they were feeding more of their own cattle and making preferential pricing and exclusive market access deals with the biggest feeders for additional large volumes of cattle that they didn’t have to bid on. Armed with enough captive supply cattle to stay out of the cash market for an extended period, the packers dropped the price of fat cattle $17 per cwt. in six weeks – a loss in value of around $200 per head. Over a thousand angry cattlemen packed the Holiday Inn in Omaha, Nebraska. The packers got the message. The market recovered about $12 per cwt. right away. The packers learned an important lesson – without competition, the market, and people’s perceptions, would have to be managed.
From deep in the meat packers’ pockets, the economists, market touts, and those receiving preferential treatment, bleated all kinds of phony excuses for the price drop – from ‘supply and demand’, to the standard ‘too much chicken and pork’, and, of course, cattle feeders were poor marketers. Dr. Helmuth’s explanation was simple and accurate, “There’s an economic term to describe this phenomenon, it’s called stealing”.
Big packers fear two things – Competition and court rooms
Attorney Robert M. Cook, representing one of the biggest cattle feeders in Nebraska, described forcefully in “Helmuth” language what the packers had done to the market – IBP sued him.
The trial revealed the accuracy of Cook’s statements:
“At times, the company over purchases its entire needs, with forward contracts. (See Supp. App.Ex. 197) Exhibit 197 shows that during April-June of 1994, a time critical to this case, IBP contracted for as much as 122%, and as little as 53%, of its entire projected kill with cattle contracted for forward delivery. IBP’s corporate policies required it to sell these cattle on the commodities market before they were contracted for purchase from a cattle feeder. IBP killed 180,000 head of cattle per week in 1994.”
When closing argument was presented against IBP in the Cook case (USDC Neb. 1995) I argued to the jury that IBP had become the largest owner of cattle feedyards in America through the artifice of contracting. Forward contracts had permitted IBP to buy up, control, and therefore effectively own, an overwhelming portion of America’s cattle production capacities “without buying one acre of land, pouring one cubic yard of concrete, installing one linear foot of feed lot, digging one post hole, stringing one wire, or investing one dime.”
The jury reacted to the argument with widened eyes, then, as I could see the thought sink in, their amazement turned to disgust.
They rewarded my client with their verdict.
– David Domina, Attorney for Robert M. Cook
Awarding plaintiffs $1.28 billion in the 2004 Tyson/IBP trial, the jury found IBP had as much as 170% captive supply, more than in the spring of 1994. Additionally, head cattle buyer Bruce Bass admitted that IBP paid less for cash cattle when captive supplies were plentiful. Grade and yield data showed that the cash cattle IBP was forced to bid on (to set the price for captive cattle), were better quality than their so-called value-based purchases. Judge Lyle B. Strom, a Reagan appointed “de-regulation”- “bigger is better” judge, reversed the jury’s verdict, handing the cattlemen’s win over to Tyson/IBP and sticking cattlemen with Tyson’s court costs.
Like losers in a Monopoly game, independent producers are out of money and sitting on the couch. The so called value-based, moving-target, grade-and-yield fools game, where quantity trumps quality and discounts are often ten times the premiums, is leaving independent producers, from ranchers to feeders, with no chance for a fair price and no hope of survival. Honesty, integrity, and meat quality have disappeared along with antitrust law enforcement and a fair cash market. The retailer monopoly (Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, etc.) is charging record high prices for beef as independent producers are slaughtered with their livestock.