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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming cattle growers could be assessed an additional $1 per head of cattle to help fund beef promotion programs in the state and around the world under controversial proposed state legislation.

The bill, which is being drawn up in the Legislature's Joint Agriculture Committee, would create a state beef checkoff system that would be authorized to raise money to promote and increase demand for beef.

Cattle growers in Wyoming have been assessed $1 per head since the 1970s under state law. But since the mid-1980s, that money, about $960,000 per year, has gone to the national beef checkoff, which splits the revenues evenly between the national Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board and the Wyoming Beef Council.

The proposed legislation would create a state beef checkoff that could collect its own additional fee of up to $1 per head; all of that new money would go to the Wyoming Beef Council.

Even if the proposed bill passes, no state checkoff fee would be actually be imposed unless it was approved by the Wyoming Livestock Board on the recommendation of the Beef Council's executive board.

Beef Council Executive Director Ann Wittmann said the extra revenue is needed to shore up programs that have been scaled back in recent years because of inflation and increased costs.

The Beef Council, she said, would use the new money to restore funding to Wyoming CattleWomen programs, Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom education programs and direct promotions with Wyoming restaurants, grocery stores and distributors.

Some of the money would also go to national and worldwide promotion efforts, Wittmann said, such as the U.S. Meat Export Federation, a nonprofit trade group that has seen funding from the Beef Council slashed by 10 percent during the past five years.

If the proposed legislation passes, Wittman said the Beef Council would then go to Wyoming cattle producers themselves to see whether any extra checkoff charge should be imposed.

“This is the first step in assessing the climate of the industry to decide whether or not the producers who pay into this program want a state checkoff,” Wittmann said. “We'd need to go out and do some fact-finding from the constituents who are paying into the program before we would just increase the dollar amount.”

Currently, five other states collect in-state beef checkoff dollars on top of money for the national checkoff: Alabama, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Louisiana.

At a business meeting during its annual convention in June, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association voted nearly unanimously to support the creation of a state checkoff system.

Jim Magagna, the association's executive vice president, said support for the state checkoff was driven by the realization that Beef Council revenues have declined — especially as drought has reduced the number of cattle in Wyoming for the foreseeable future — and by the expectation that the national checkoff won't increase for a while.

However, Magagna said he believed that most of the association's members endorsed a state checkoff of 25 cents or 50 cents per head, rather than the full dollar the proposed bill would allow.

“Our people that voted for this believe is [it's] critically important today in maintaining and expanding our beef demand,” Magagna said.

However, many ranchers say a state checkoff system is

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unnecessary and will hurt their businesses.

“We're going broke pretty fast as it is,” said Judy McCullough, a Moorcroft rancher and director of the Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming. “If you sell 400 cows, instead of $400 [for the checkoff], it'd be $800. That is a whole calf going just to pay the checkoff.”

McCullough said Cattlemen of Wyoming members — as well as a number of other ranchers — don't think the national checkoff is working. And a state checkoff, she fears, would be in the hands of the Wyoming Livestock Board rather than those who pay it.

“This bill is an open-ended — there is no say in what the money has to be used for,” she said. “It probably won't allow us producers who pay it to control it.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mark Semlek, R-Moorcroft, said before he could vote for the legislation, he'd first have to be convinced in committee hearings that checkoff programs do more good than harm for Wyoming cattle growers.

“The committee will need to be convinced that it's effective based on the testimony that we hear,” he said. “I for one am going to take a very, very close look at that and listen to my constituents because I'm hearing from a lot of them that say that they're not real happy with the federal program and the way that money's been used.”

Jeremy Pelzer can be reached at 307-632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com

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Suzanne Ady can be reached at 657-1482.

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