R-CALF counts on Pierre native for leadership
Riggs High School graduate Bill Bullard formerly worked for the Public Utilities Commission in Pierre but since 2001 he has been CEO of R-CALF USA, a group that represents independent cattle producers.
(Photo courtesy of R-CALF)
Some might have thought Bill Bullard had found the perfect niche for his talents in the five and a half years he spent as executive director for South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission in Pierre.
It was a task that had him prodding issues through the South Dakota Legislature and among industry stakeholders – easy work for a man who was used to working cattle.
But then one day the phone rang.
“I received a phone call out of the blue from a head-hunter, I guess you would call it,” says Bullard. “They asked me if I would be interested in a position as a CEO of a relatively new but fast-growing cattle association.”
As it happened, Bullard – a 1976 graduate of Pierre’s Riggs High School – had ranched for five years in Perkins County before going to work for the PUC. He didn’t have to think about the offer too long.
“I viewed it as a perfect match,” he said.
That fast-growing cattle association was R-CALF, now R-CALF USA, an association that was officially formed in 1999. The acronym stands for the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. Bullard, who now lives in Billings, became the CEO of the organization in 2001 and has been holding the reins ever since.
R-CALF USA holds its 13th annual convention in Rapid City this weekend, Aug. 24-25 – and the location isn’t any accident. South Dakota happens to be in the very heart of R-CALF’s membership.
“South Dakota is our largest membership state, followed by North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Kansas,” Bullard says. “But we have members in 45 states.”
The organization’s membership surged to a high of 18,000 in the period from 2005-07, when mad cow disease in Canada energized the industry. Numbers have fallen since then.
“We’re holding steady at about 5,400 members and we continue to be involved in some of the most critical issues facing cattle producers,” Bullard said.
Most R-CALF members are family-sized cow-calf producers with operations ranging in size from 50 head to 3,000 head. But it also has members who fit into the cattle industry in other ways, as backgrounders or feedlot operators, for example.
About that working relationship …
There’s one segment of the cattle industry that isn’t plentifully represented within R-CALF – meatpackers. In contrast to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, whose affiliates include the Pierre-based South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, R-CALF doesn’t believe one organization can fairly represent the interests of both cattle producers and meatpackers. And that sets up some friction with the NCBA.
“We do not have a working relationship with NCBA,” said Bullard. “We simply are on opposite sides of these issues. The NCBA has meatpackers seated on their governing board, so they have a different position than that which is held by independent producers across the country.”
R-CALF is hotly opposed to what Bullard calls a vertical integration model that brings large portions of the supply chain under meatpacker control. It’s already happened in the poultry and hog industries, he says.
“We call the process the packers are pursuing ‘the chickenization of the cattle industry.’ The packers want to capture control over the livestock supply chain,” Bullard said. “That is the big challenge our organization faces, to prevent what has happened in the poultry and swine industries.”
Bullard said R-CALF is supported exclusively by membership dues and contributions, and that many producers voluntarily donate to R-CALF $1 per head from the livestock they sell. He contrasts that with the mandatory $1 per head checkoff from every animal sold helps fund NCBA.
“That money flows to the NCBA and facilitates that organization’s ability to fight against us on these issues,” Bullard said.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President J.D. Alexander counters that the industry must work as a whole, and that every sector that depends on cattle and cattle producers should be part of discussions about the direction of the industry.
“We believe the entire cattle community must come together and work on issues as a united front, from conception to consumption. We must be transparent and communicate as an industry. We need ranchers, feeders, cow/calf producers, stockers, packers, retailers and agribusiness at the table in order to make the best decisions. NCBA represents cattlemen – period. Other sectors are involved because they depend on cattlemen for success, and vise versa. United we succeed; but divided we will fail. We allow these other sectors to be part of the discussions.”
Alexander adds that no checkoff money from ranchers goes to fight R-CALF on policy issues.
“NCBA is 100 percent financed by members and other entities that support what we are doing for American cattle farmers and ranchers. Not one red cent of checkoff money is used to support NCBA’s policy division. Not one checkoff dollar has been used to fight R-CALF on any policy issue. R-CALF is wondering why they lose and the fact we are a contractor to the checkoff is an easy target. The fact is, NCBA is progressive in thinking towards the future, and we want to continue to enhance the years of innovations and hard work by cattlemen and cattlewomen in this country. Common sense prevails. This has nothing to do with checkoff money.”
The issue over perceived packer involvement in the NCBA was heated enough some years ago that one South Dakota group – the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association – chose to formally end its relationship with NCBA and align itself with R-CALF instead.
“That decision was made by a vote of the members at their annual convention in 2000,” said South Dakota Stockgrowers Association Executive Director Silvia Christen.
South Dakota Stockgrowers Association President Shane Kolb of Meadow, S.D., said that for the most part, producers still agree with that decision.
“The mood was that NCBA was failing to meet the needs of South Dakota stockgrowers,” Kolb said. “They felt that NCBA was aligning themselves too close with interests that did not represent the needs of cow-calf producers. We affiliated with R-CALF to work on issues at the national level.”
Harrold, S.D., rancher Jerald Bronemann said he’s one of the ranchers who freely supports R-CALF, and he says many of his neighbors do, too.
“R-CALF is pretty much grassroots ranchers,” he said. “It seems like NCBA is more for the packers. And yet the NCBA gets a lot of its money from the ranchers from the checkoff.”
To counteract that, Bronemann said, he voluntarily contributes to R-CALF.
“Here in Fort Pierre when I sell my cattle, I usually leave them some money. It’s not mandatory to do, but I think they’re doing a good job. I sold probably two hundred and some calves last year and left $300. I’d say there’s not a week goes by in Fort Pierre that somebody doesn’t leave money.”
R-CALF – with Riggs High School graduate Bill Bullard riding point – rewards its supporters by keeping their issues as fresh as a hot brand.
“Many organizations have the philosophy that they want to live to fight another day,” Bullard explains. “We are not an organization that is inclined to compromise on issues that determine whether we will have an independent structure in our cattle industry.”