Owner: Alexander Cattle & Farms
Family: Wife Debra, son Joshua Alexander of Pilger and daughter Kesa Alexander of Sioux Falls, S.D.
College: South Dakota State University, bachelor of science in agricultural economics, 1975. Football team captain, 1974.
Career: FMC Corp. ag chemicals division, sales representative and manager in Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, 1975-84; Alexander Cattle & Farms, 1984-current.
Community: Founding member of Wisner-Pilger Community Schools Foundation; director of Midwest Bank, Pierce, Neb., and United Republic Bank, Omaha.
Industry: Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board, 1992-98; National Beef Industry Planning Group, 2000-01; Nebraska Cattlemen, president, 2001; elected to Nebraska Hall of Agricultural Achievement, 2001; National Cattlemen's Beef Association, president, 2012.
PILGER, Neb. — This bite was hard to swallow.
Nebraska cattleman J.D. Alexander was at a beef industry policy meeting in Denver last summer when he learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had launched a “Meatless Monday” promotion at its headquarters cafeterias in Washington, D.C.
Alexander, a Pilger cattle feeder, was not amused. He was president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a trade association and advocate for more than 230,000 cattle breeders, producers and feeders.
Needless to say, the word “meatless” is nowhere to be found in the association's 161-page policy menu. Alexander, a former college linebacker, went on the offensive.
He said the USDA initiative called into question the agency's commitment to American farmers and ranchers. He said USDA apparently didn't understand how hard rural America is working to feed a growing global population in an environmentally sustainable way.
In Alexander's world, American beef should be on plates around the globe. He says U.S. beef has never been better positioned to maintain a place on consumers' plates, even though Mother Nature isn't helping much to get more meat into kitchens. “If drought remains, it will be a challenge,'' he said.
Add more exports to Japan to the equation and the outlook is murky for how U.S. cattlemen will meet domestic and global demand
Alexander has traveled extensively across the United States and around the world as a beef ambassador since returning nearly 30 years ago to his northeast Nebraska, family-owned feedlot operation — Alexander Cattle & Farms. His latest stop was Tampa, Fla., for an annual trade show that was his last hurrah as the association's president.
Alexander doesn't play behind the line of scrimmage. He prefers to be on the front lines of defending his industry.
“If you're not at the table,” he says, “you're on the menu.”
The beef industry is big business. Annual cash receipts for cattle and calves rank No. 1 among Nebraska agricultural commodities at $7.2 billion. No other state produces more red meat each year, with commercial production topping 7.16 billion pounds in 2011. Iowa ranks second with 6.59 billion pounds of red meat production; Kansas is a distant third.
Exports are expected to pack more muscle onto those numbers in coming years.
A new agreement with Japan that took effect Feb. 1 is estimated to yield hundreds of millions of dollars in additional beef exports. Japan's previously restricted market now matches most of the rest of the world and allows imports of meat and byproducts from cattle under 30 months of age.
Japan first banned and then restricted U.S. beef imports after one cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was found in the United States in 2003.
“When Japan closed its market, they cut us off completely overnight,” Alexander said. “We lost 10 percent of our business. We've been working for nearly 10 years now to get that back.”
World trade and health organizations have recognized U.S. animal health and food safety initiatives and labeled America as a minimal risk for so-called mad cow disease. Rebounding beef exports reflect worldwide acceptance of the safety and quality of U.S. beef, Alexander said.
Now, the challenge is producing enough of it during deep drought in the nation's cattle country to supply domestic and global markets, especially now that Japan expanded access to its market.
Through November 2012, Japan was the second-largest export market for U.S. beef. Sales of nearly 130,000 metric tons totaled $849 million. The U.S. Meat Export Federation predicts beef exports to Japan to hit $1.5 billion this year.
Japan's decision — coupled with White House approval of long-delayed free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in October — should give a boost to U.S. producers facing drought, high costs of production and increasing federal regulation, Alexander said.
Trade agreements increase beef demand and profitability.
Still, record-high prices currently paid by packing plants for cattle isn't translating into profitability for cattlemen, Alexander said. Higher costs of machinery, labor, land and young cattle to feed are combining to drain dollars out of the beef business, he said.
Last summer, a historic drought crept north out of Texas into the central Plains and Corn Belt to ambush the cattle industry. Drought-devastated fields produced less and costlier corn for feeding livestock. Ranchers without pasture grass or corn thinned their herds by sending them to slaughter. The nation's herd is the smallest in 60 years, Alexander said.
His own business is a 2,000-acre corn, soybean and alfalfa farm that markets about 12,000 head of cattle from his finishing feedlot each year. He buys yearling cattle that weigh about 850 pounds and feeds them a 40-pound daily ration of corn, an ethanol byproduct, alfalfa and other roughage. The cattle gain about 3.7 pounds per day. They are sent to slaughter when they weigh about 1,400 pounds.
Alexander ships cattle from his feedlot weekly to any of five major meatpackers within a 100-mile radius. He also tries to buy cattle weekly. The regular buy-sell cycle is his hedge against wildly fluctuating prices.
Cattlemen, like most farmers, don't control the price of their product.
“We have to take what somebody is willing to give us,” Alexander said. “It would be easy if we could say here's what I paid for it, here's my production cost and here's what I have to have for it — and they'd pay us. That's not the way our industry works. There's a lot of times that we don't make a lot of money.”
Despite record-high prices currently paid by packers and the average price of choice beef costing consumers a record $5 per pound, cattle feeders are losing $50 to $100 a head when they sell animals for slaughter, said Beth Doran, an Iowa State University extension beef program specialist.
Doran said cattle feeders also are feeling pressure on the demand side of the business as consumers juggle higher taxes and fuel and grocery costs into their budgets.
Despite liquidation of cattle herds, which flooded the market with meat, beef price inflation was strong last year. Beef prices were up 4.6 percent, according to the USDA. (Pork and poultry prices also were up.) Grocery store prices are expected to increase 3 percent to 4 percent this year and inflation is expected to remain strong for most animal-based food products because of higher feed costs.
Alexander said higher beef and other meat protein prices for consumers are inevitable as the supply shrinks.
“There's risk in that,'' he said. “What level will be too much for them? There are opportunities for the consumer to save money by shopping in smart ways, but the high price of cattle or beef does not guarantee profitability to cattlemen.''
Alexander said it's not uncommon for cattlemen to sell their animals at a loss.
“You just hope that during the long run, over the year, that you'll have an opportunity to take some profit,'' he said. “That's why we welcome the new open markets in Japan.”
Increased sales to Japan won't take beef off American dinner tables, because a significant share of the Japanese demand is for products not favored in the United States, such as tongue and heart, Alexander said.
“They don't take all the muscle meats that we sell in our domestic market,'' he said.
Rebounding from the drought and expanding the nation's herd is vital if the industry is to remain sustainable, Alexander said. Packing plants have excess shackle space in their slaughter operations. Feedlots have unused feed bunks.
“To make these operations run, you've got to have the numbers to make them efficient and run a good business,” Alexander said.
Alexander said he worries that if the drought continues, the demand for beef may exceed supply.
“The one thing you do not wish to happen is to promote your product and then you can't supply it,” he said. “That's why we hope the drought is a one and done in our area.”
Alexander said U.S. beef — especially its corn-fed niche — is widely viewed around the world as a premier product. He said through scientific research, nutrition education and increased lean beef availability, cattlemen are committed to helping Americans enjoy lean beef as part of a healthful diet. The National Cattleman's Beef Association supports federal guidelines that call for Americans to eat lean meats.
USDA and independent research indicates Americans are not eating too much beef. Americans, on average, eat 1.7 ounces of beef daily. Federal dietary guidelines recommend adults eat 3.7 ounces of meat, poultry or eggs per day.
That's why, Alexander said, he pounced so quickly on the USDA “Meatless Monday” promotion.
The campaign appeared in a five-page USDA “greening'' newsletter that featured information about recycling, energy-efficient lights, demonstration gardens showcasing sustainable landscaping practices, such as using rain barrels to save water, and the headquarters food service.
The promotion cited a United Nations report that animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change and wastes water, fertilizer, fossil fuels and pesticides. It cited health concerns related to excessive consumption of meat.
And it encouraged employees to go meatless one day a week to help the environment.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack quickly nixed the promotion and by that afternoon was on the phone to Alexander. An apologetic Vilsack — a former Iowa governor — said two USDA employees started the initiative without his knowledge or approval.
The next week, Alexander met with Vilsack in Washington. Alexander said they had a cordial meeting and discussed a wide range of agricultural and rural issues.
Vilsack spent hours in following weeks stamping out the smoldering meat fire. He told one interviewer that he called in supervisors of the employees and “read them the riot act'' and was certain that the responsible individuals had the riot act read to them.
Alexander said cattlemen were upset because the lean beef they produce easily fits into federal dietary guidelines established by the USDA.
“When you're the leader, you take great pride in it and want to continue to do it,” he said. “It was very disappointing and discouraging. When your own Agriculture Department starts observing a meatless Monday, there's something wrong.”
Alexander weighs in on other industry topics
Third-generation farmer-feeder J.D. Alexander of Pilger, Neb., has been a point man for the livestock industry as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for the last year.
Here are his thoughts on other issues facing the industry:
>> Beef checkoff, a $1-per-head fee paid by cattlemen for promotion and research when they sell an animal:
“It's been $1 for more than 25 years. A dollar buys half what it did back then, so our buying power is cut in half. We're always looking at increasing the checkoff. Everybody recognizes you have to do more promoting and you need more money to do it. The challenge is if you don't have profitable times, it's hard to get the producer to agree to check off more. It's only a dollar, but sometimes you're taking that away from someone who's already lost $50 on an animal.”
>> Renewable Fuel Standards. The Environmental Protection Agency denied requests last year to waive its requirements for corn-based ethanol production after drought caused corn prices to spike, a favorable situation for corn farmers, another key part of Nebraska's ag economy.
“We say let the market dictate who will pay what. We understand to get it up and running, (ethanol) needed some legs, but now it's a mature market. Yet the government mandates that four of 10 bushels of corn has to go to ethanol. We don't think that's fair. The real disappointing thing this year is that we're in the worst drought in over 50 years — and our price of corn is at an all-time high — and the Environmental Protection Agency wouldn't waive the standard.”
>> The farm bill, a bundle of legislation that sets national agricultural and conservation policy. The last farm bill was passed in 2008 and expired in 2012. Congress extended it through the 2013 crop year.
“We need it for product research and for catastrophic coverage assistance during natural disasters, such as drought. It also helps with funding environmental projects. It's important in a rural state — a safety net to help us through not-normal times.”
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