Opinion: Check-off fund increases always a challenge

There’s little that gets people as excited in farm country as a check-off increase.

The extra $1.50 that was approved by the delegates to Ontario Beef Farmers’ annual meeting recently is a case in point, and was watched closely by other farmer organizations.

Beef Farmers of Ontario has seen the sector decline in the province, especially in the cow-calf sector, as it competes for land with corn and soybeans that can increasingly be grown profitably in areas with less summer heat.

Increasingly vocal activists try to paint anyone who works with food animals as evil, or at least misguided. Beef Farmers of Ontario wants to counter that message and needs more resources to do so.

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Check-off funds have historically been more focused on government lobbying and producer programs and services. External marketing hasn’t been a major part of most organizations’ check-off budget, with the exception of dairy farmers who pile tens of millions of their dollars into marketing each year across the country through deductions from their milk cheques.

However, others have put more investment into messaging and communications risk mitigation than beef farmers. Hog farmers have been working on that for years. The BFO program has the potential to create a brand or multiple branded programs and move further into broad-based market development than most other commodity organizations.

Beef Farmers of Ontario officials had few answers to farmers with concerns about brand confusion with the strong Ontario Corn Fed Beef brand and the proliferation of private branded beef programs in the market. Ontario Cattle Feeders Association executive director Jim Clark said that there have been seven new branded beef programs in Ontario in the past year.

Working their way through that interesting and unique marketing environment will be challenging for the new Ontario Cattle Feeders and Ontario Beef Farmers marketing committee.

The people behind the Ontario Corn Fed Beef program have been highly successful in creating a differentiated product that retailers desire. If they can move their magic beyond the on-the-button quality assurance parameters of the program to something broader that creates a brand or a program that beef farmers and consumers can get behind, then the $1.50 extra per head will be worth the investment for beef farmers.

It is a tall order, however, and will take long-term investment. The Ontario Corn Fed Beef program took many years to build to the muscular market influence it now has in Ontario and increasingly in export markets. The program is now 20 years old.

The other goal of the program is to create enough throughput for market conditions that help to encourage efficient cow-calf production in Ontario.

That’s also a laudable goal. We need a healthy and larger cow-calf sector in Ontario. There’s land that was taken out of pasture over the past decade and put into row crop production that is best suited to pasture. You’ve seen the fields— highly variable in soils and topography. The corn isn’t consistent, the soybeans spotty. But the increased profitability that was available in corn and soybeans and wheat were hard to argue against.

BFO has it right — the goal has to be efficient cow-calf operations that can be profitably competitive. What’s needed is more cow-calf operations that have dedication to parameters finishers are looking for, with scale that provides an income and the volume of cattle that can turn the larger finishers away from constantly having to pull calves from Western Canada to get the ones they need. That’s another tall order, but there are examples now of farmers who produce calves intensively, or with very low inputs who should be the teachers of the next generation of beef farmers.

The Beef Farmers of Ontario spent a lot of time in the past year convincing its members to approve the increased check-off. Beef farmers appear to be onside. Here’s hoping the increased funds can deliver on the lofty goals set for it.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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