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Who has been thinking about that cow and her yearling calf in the rural pasture or those many thousands of broilers in that farmer's chicken house during this pandemic?

Well, not many.

But a lot of the local legislators, led by retiring state representative Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, had been pushing for some immediate changes to Arkansas' agricultural procedures and laws in an attempt to safeguard the financial impact of this covid-19 on the rural ranchers and farmers of the state.

Thank goodness, Douglas is not alone in sending out a clarion call for attention to the impending financial consequences facing Arkansas' agricultural community.

Recently at a meeting of the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee, some very chilling facts about the pandemic were discussed.

For example, disruptions in the food supply chain affect more than the number of products on the grocery store shelves. These disruptions have forced Arkansas cattlemen and farmers to make financial decisions today that will affect the supply and demand for food over the coming months and years, one speaker said.

And if one stops to ponder the position of the independent farmer and rancher in this state on the supply of meat and protein, this becomes immediately evident.

The usual experts were in the meeting, as legislators heard from top officials at the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture. Also, the solons heard from a representative of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association.

First of all, the university's vice president for agriculture emphasized that consumers should always keep in mind that the coronavirus DOES NOT (my emphasis) come from any food products.

After that fact was stated again and again for all to hear, nearly all the speakers to the committee, discussed erratic fluctuations in prices of meat -- some increased supply and some increased demand at different stages of the supply chain.

For example, members were told, at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, some consumers were panic buying and there was little or no meat on grocery shelves. That drove up demand.

Next, government orders shut down or severely limited the restaurant and foodservice industry. That drove down demand significantly, because about half of the nation's beef supply had been bought by restaurants.

So where does that leave local farmers? In the usual situation with even more problems to raise, market and sell their cattle, poultry and other farm-produced goods.

Another set of issues affecting cattlemen resulted from bottlenecks at processing plants caused by labor shortages and shutdowns. Outbreaks of covid-19 among employees have caused bottlenecks in the supply chain for beef and pork processing plants.

Here is a chilling fact seldom discussed on the local TV stations or media.

The drop in broiler chick placements will hurt poultry growers because they will be able to raise fewer flocks during the coming year.

And fewer chickens, we know, means higher prices on the grocery store shelves.

Arkansas cattle are mainly cows and calves that are sold and sent to feedlots in other states. Feedlots are keeping calves longer because of the bottleneck at processing plants, which is causing a glut upstream in the supply chain.

And the financials of the pandemic were discussed in detail: At the beginning of March, cattle producers saw a drop of $88 a head for 550-pound calves. Other cattlemen and some sale barns have to navigate legal issues with processing plants, which no longer want delivery of cattle that they have contracted to buy.

When prices drop, cattle growers often have to reduce the size of their herds. Those decisions will affect the long-term supply of beef in months and years to come. The solutions discussed included debt relief for producers who have fixed loans that need to be paid, no matter what disruptions the coronavirus causes.

But as all committee meetings, the information shared will have to wade its way into the next legislative session before actual changes can be set forth.

And still that cow and her calf and those chickens in the broiler house need to be fed and cared for at whatever the cost, profit or loss, to the local farmer.

The pandemic affects us all.

• • •

Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 05/20/2020

Print Headline: Virus will impact local cattle, poultry farmers in Arkansas

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