From BSE testing to export bans to the launch of an animal identification system, the U.S. beef industry lately has been beset by troubles.
This week, a federal judge in South Dakota agreed to hear a lawsuit filed by cattle producers against the nation's four largest meatpackers as a class action suit. A jury will decide if the packers owe producers money due to faulty pricing reports made three years ago.
Despite such tribulations, there's no denying the industry is benefiting from red-hot consumer demand for beef. That fact has not been lost on a beef-promoting couple in South Dakota, who took a simple idea and "passed the buck." Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.
When first meeting Bob Montross, it's hard to miss his enthusiasm for beef. He and his wife Nancy finish nearly every sentence with the word. And, if a person accompanies them to dinner, it's best if he orders a steak. To ask for any other meat, the guest might find himself dining alone. After all, beef is how the Montrosses make their living, raising cattle in eastern South Dakota.
Bob Montross, De Smet, South Dakota: "We run a cow/calf operation with backgrounds in calves. Some years, we buy extra cattle. We do raise corn and raise soybeans, raise a little hay and raise some cattle on grass. That's pretty well our farming operation."
In 1996, it was in Montross' living room that he, his wife and one of their daughters came up with an idea to raise beef awareness. The idea - a billboard located on highway 14 just outside De Smet, South Dakota; making it impossible for drivers to miss the big T-bone through their windshields, not to mention that catchy slogan, "Beef...our steak in the future."
Bob Montross, De Smet, South Dakota: "We're pretty proud of that cowboy hat and steak sitting on there. We think it's a tremendous picture, I think as American as apple pie and baseball. It just jumps right out at you and I've been pushing to get it on a United States postage stamp. So, if anybody knows how we can get a hold of the Postmaster General, I'd appreciate getting a hold of that boy and we'll promote the beef industry some more."
The steak and cowboy hat image has become a legend of sorts around South Dakota and the Montrosses have been on a mission to promote beef throughout America ever since. Along with the support of local associations and other beef industry promoters, they came up with the idea of "South Dakota Beef Bucks - dollar-for-dollar beef gift certificates that can be redeemed at restaurants and grocery stores anywhere in the United States. The Montrosses say they've had certificates redeemed from as far away as Arizona.
Eileen Moller, Mitchell, SD: "They're surprised when you tell them, yeah, you can go out and buy beef anywhere. You know, you can go out to Burger King, etc. They can't quite believe it, but it is true!"
Often money for the Beef Bucks comes from donations from cattle producers who auction off a calf or cow for the cause. For example, at the Bales Continental Commission Company in Huron, South Dakota, cattle producers were amazed at how much money one calf brought after a local farmer decided to join the effort and donate one of his calves.
Greg Gruntmeir, Huron, SD: "We decided we wanted to do something for the industry, so we went ahead and donated a calf to the beef association and they auctioned it off several times and raised a lot of money doing so. I believe it ended up raising 10,000 dollars."
Kent Bales, Huron, SD: "We were a little leery of how this was going to happen...It turned out to be a really nice promotion."
Beef Bucks is a joint effort of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association and the Cattlemen's Auxiliary. The board of directors is volunteer and there is no money paid out for any travel or production expenses.
Last December, the Beef Bucks promotion became especially important when an outbreak of mad cow disease was discovered for the first time in the U.S. The news of its arrival sent the beef industry spinning. Beef prices plummeted and cattle producers everywhere were concerned about the future of the beef industry.
Kent Bales, Huron, SD: " At the time it (BSE) happened, we were probably devastated...Especially the time it happened. We do about 80 percent of our business in three months time...You have to continue doing business to stay in business. We didn't want to just shut the door."
While America's lone case of BSE is, for the most part, history, the Montrosses are continuing their efforts to improve consumer confidence in beef.
Nancy Montross, De Smet, SD: "Well, I kind of feel like if we're not going to promote our won product, who is going to do it for us? We need to get out there as grassroots people and tell the customers that we feel safe about our product, and that it is a good product."
Beef Bucks are handed out for free on a first-come, first-serve basis, attracting crowds like this one in a Mitchell, South Dakota, grocery store. The customers were eager to get a coupon.
Sheri Schuldt, Mitchell, SD: "It's great. Meat's been really high lately and we eat a lot of meat at our house. I've been on the Atkins diet, so I really eat a lot of beef."
Accolades aside, Montross claims Beef Bucks benefits both consumers and cattle producers. Promoters estimate they have given out nearly 750,000 dollars in Beef Bucks since the promotion started eight years ago.
Bob Montross, De Smet, SD: "You've got producers and auction market people, order buyers and anybody in the cattle business and bankers and small town business people getting on this same program. That has got to be one of the first times maybe that's ever happened."
More importantly, though, Beef Bucks is a way for cattle producers to thank consumers for buying beef.
Randy Fenske, Huron, SD: "Everybody's had a real positive feeling about what happened here. In the grocery stores, people first responded by thinking what's up with this? They couldn't believe they got 10 dollars or whatever to buy beef. While it's not a lot of money, it's just a nice way to say thank you."
Bob Montross, De Smet, SD: "There was a message on our telephone that somebody called and said, "We want to thank you for what you did with the Beef Bucks." She said she was definitely going to be buying more beef. And, it was nice, one of those things you like to hear. We might just have to save it and play it every now and then. It was nice."
For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.