Opportunities, challenges for beef industry

Economic recovery and growth since the onslaught and disruptions of COVID-19 have helped raise prospects for beef producers and other livestock producers in 2022. However, producers continue to face challenges from COVID-19 impacts, and now face other challenges as conflict in Ukraine plays out on the global economy.

Amid these economic opportunities and challenges, beef producers remain engaged in the discussion and development of policy issues. While producers and producer organizations focus on policy issues and proposals, a cohort of students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is honing its policy focus as part of the Nebraska Beef Industry Scholars program in UNL’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

The NBIS program’s 13th class of scholars is working through its final semester in a course focused on beef policy issues. The group traveled to the 2022 Cattle Industry Convention in February to participate in policy discussions, bringing back several topics for further focus and discussion. The list reads not only like an assignment for class, but also as a map for the whole beef industry for 2022 and beyond.

Cattle marketing

One of the biggest and longest running issues of discussion is the broad area of cattle marketing. Concerns about market competitiveness, price spreads and concentration in the meat processing sector date back more than 100 years to a previous era of concern, and ultimately the implementation of the Packers and Stockyards Act and regulatory activity that continues today.

Recent market shocks, including COVID-19 constraints on packing capacity, have reignited the debate as cattle prices suffered even as beef prices at the retail counter climbed.

The issues of today include a focus on price discovery and transparency, and the question of whether cash market negotiations are sufficient to establish a competitive market price. The level of cash negotiations has declined substantially over time as the use of alternative marketing arrangements or formula contacts have grown.

The contracts provide benefits to producers and to packers in the form of market risk management, supply chain coordination and potential quality incentives, but they also come with costs to the broader market if there are not enough negotiated cash trades to establish a competitive base price.

Current policy proposals include efforts to establish required minimum levels of cash trade, increase market price reporting information and develop a public library of cattle-marketing contracts to increase information available to market participants.

Additional policy efforts go directly to the capacity question with support and incentives for the development of additional small to midsize packers across the country.


Another issue that has been directly affected by COVID-19 and the economic recovery since is the broad issue of the workforce. A shortage of workers across the economy seems particularly acute in the agricultural and food sector, as retail outlets are challenged with staffing issues and as a lack of truckers affects the entire food and supply chain.

Longer-run concerns over the supply of labor, immigration and regulations on foreign workers were multiplied by COVID-19 shocks and follow-up regulatory requirements and proposals for worker and workplace safety. Additional supply chain logistics issues remain a challenge post-COVID, in large part because of workforce issues, putting further pressure on policy development.

Conservation and the environment

Agriculture in general is both a large target of environmental regulatory policy and a large beneficiary of conservation incentive programs. Forging a balance between regulations and incentives will continue to be a primary issue for policymakers and policy stakeholders in the industry.

On the incentive side, beef producers and others have been longtime participants in conservation incentive programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. New proposals to incentivize climate-smart practices offer potential benefits to producers even as they add questions about future directions for policy.

On the regulatory side, issues such as Waters of the United States keep reappearing in what seems like a roller-coaster ride between various administrative interpretations of original Clean Water Act authority and more recent court decisions.

Producers and the broader industry are also watching various other existing regulations, as well as the broad proposals for land conservation from the Biden administration in what was called the “America the Beautiful” Initiative, or in many circles, the “30 x 30” plan. A lack of clarity on what the plan entails or even how much additional public or private land was being targeted only provides more fodder for the ongoing discussions.


Traceability is not a new issue, but it continues to be a focus of discussion both for consumer market perspectives and for animal health and management. Discussions on country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat date back more than 30 years and were presumably settled by farm bill legislation and later dispute settlements through the World Trade Organization.

However, the issue continues to be raised by many of the same stakeholders as those concerned over cattle market competitiveness. The policy discussion is focused on the definition and use of the “Product of the USA” label and could essentially become a process or source-verified label that is a voluntary alternative to the original mandatory label proposed for COOL.

There are other issues on the radar with continuing questions about the labeling of alternative proteins, whether from plant-based or cell-based processes. With all of the labeling issues, there are also general questions about consumer awareness and understanding of labels.

On the production and management side, there are questions about traceability related to animal health and biosecurity, as well as questions about any of the traceability programs and the management and protection of confidential producer data. Nebraska-specific issues show up here with brand law and the usage of electronic identification methods.

Trade, technology and taxes

There are numerous other issues on the radar for beef producers and industry stakeholders, including trade, technology and taxes. Growth and opportunities in trade have brought increased demand for beef. Yet there remain numerous questions about trade relations, agreements, and promotion efforts between the U.S. and its major trading partners.

Technology issues show up with the data management questions highlighted in traceability, as well as the usage and regulation of existing technologies like antibiotics or emerging technologies such as gene editing.

Tax policy discussions reached a peak in the past year as both estate tax and capital gains tax proposals were floated as part of major economic legislation. The beef industry and the broader agricultural and business sector pushed back against the proposals, and they have disappeared from policy efforts for now.

However, concerns about federal spending and tax policy continue to be a large question for producers, particularly for those looking to protect and preserve their operation’s assets for the next generation. Of course, taxes are high on the list of Nebraska-specific issues, as well, with the long-running push from Nebraska agricultural producers for further property tax relief and the related issues of state finance and K-12 school spending.

These are some of the policy issues in the headlines and on the horizon for the beef industry, and this year’s NBIS students have developed a good understanding and perspective on the issues. The work points to the continual need for the beef industry (and other sectors) to address important issues and continue moving forward. The work also points to the quality of students and the comprehensive education and skills they have garnered to become future leaders in the beef industry.

Lubben is the Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.






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