Livestock, poultry and the farm bill in 2013

By Matt Reese

With good reason, much of the discussion of the farm bill (and the farm bill extension) has been focused on crop and dairy related programs. There has been some mention of the programs targeting small-scale agriculture as well.

But what about beef, pork and poultry producers? There are small programs here and there for these groups of agricultural producers, but the big-ticket items (particularly in the farm bill extension) all but excluded them. Disaster assistance for livestock producers and some conservation program funding was not part of the farm bill extension, which further eroded already limited farm bill benefits for the livestock sector. So, do livestock and poultry producers hope to get anything out of the 2013 farm bill?

The state’s robust egg production industry continues to wish for farm bill inclusion of something along the lines of HR 3798 — the “egg bill.” The 2012 proposed bill would phase in federally mandated standards for laying hen housing, including enriched cages with perches, scratching pads, nesting boxes, and other features that allow the hens to express natural behaviors in a group colony setting. Last year’s proposed U.S. House bill (and a very similar measure in the U.S. Senate) would basically double the existing per bird space. The egg bill was generating significant bipartisan support last year, but did not find its way into the latter stages of the 2012 farm bill debate.

While poultry producers are broadly supportive of the measure, strong criticism has come from other sectors of agriculture (most notably beef and pork producers) concerning the slippery slope that could emerge with government regulation of care standards for poultry and livestock.

Of course, this is again on the table for the farm bill in 2013, and it appears that the stark differences running along commodity lines will hold strong moving forward.

“The beef industry will stay firmly against the egg bill I believe,” said Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. “The farm bill extension is far from a good one and now we will have to start all over again on it.”

The temporary fix with the farm bill extension will also re-open the debate for animal welfare extremists to weigh in on the egg bill and other issues in the farm bill, which is of particular concern to pork producers, said Dick Isler, executive president of the Ohio Pork Producers Council.

“By needing to rewrite the farm bill this year, there is more opportunity for animal rights groups to get a foot in the door when these are decisions we need to leave to farmers and veterinarians,” Isler said.

Isler has other items on his farm bill wish list for 2013.

“We would like to see a study to do catastrophic risk assessment of foreign market closures because so much of our product is going to exports,” he said. “What happens when, for some reason, one of our export markets stops importing pork? We are just asking for a study on this funded in the farm bill.”

The Conservation Reserve Program (and other conservation programs) will also likely be a part of the farm bill debate, as livestock producers will be looking for the most acres possible for producing feed crops. And, of course, there has been the traditional sentiment that, by helping crop producers, the farm bill is also helping livestock producers through lower feed costs. Harsh pointed out that it is tough to make an argument that farm bill programs have been helping livestock producers battle cripplingly high prices in recent months.

“No one in the beef industry would agree that we are realizing much benefit with feed prices right now,” Harsh said. “They are too high.”

Isler pointed out that, while this may be true, the National Pork Producers Council, (and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) continue to be supportive of the timely passage of a comprehensive farm bill because of its overall importance to the agricultural industry.

“We like the shift to crop insurance we saw in the farm bill proposals last year. We also will continue to support provisions of continued research in agriculture,” Isler said. “And, while there are not necessarily provisions specifically for pork producers in the farm bill, we still feel that it is important for our industry.”

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