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Beef, long tops in Malheur County, now No. 1 in Oregon

 

JAMIESON — For the first time in two decades, beef is Oregon's No. 1 agricultural commodity.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture announced this summer that cattle and calves claimed the top spot in 2014, unseating greenhouse and nursery products. It was good news for ranchers who have been bolstered by strong demand and stronger prices for the last couple of years.

In 2014, the industry brought in about $922 million statewide — up 38 percent from 2013. Malheur County, in Eastern Oregon, was responsible for nearly $250 million.

“There have been some very strong cattle prices the last couple of years, and that is reflected in the value of production for cattle and calves,” said Kathryn Walker, special assistant to the director of the state agriculture department.

There are three primary components of the industry — feedlots, cow-calf operations and slaughterhouses, said Doug Maag, whose family has been ranching in the Jamieson area since the 1930s.

Six months ago, slaughterhouses were down and feedlots were losing a bit as the cost to grain cattle for slaughter was high.

“The cow-calf guy has been the strongest for the last four years,” said Maag, who has focused on the two family feedlots while other relatives have raised cattle. “Very seldom are all three (components of the industry) making money at the same time.”

Ranchers running cow-calf pairs have done well recently because there have been fewer animals on the market, Malheur County Cattlemen's Association President Chris Christensen said.

Many ranchers reduced their herds in Texas after entering the third year of drought, he said.

“They liquidated whole herds and a lot of cows went to slaughter,” Christensen said.

When the product became more scarce, the demand increased, which was good news for cattle producers.

“These buyers were scrambling for the limited number of animals out there,” Christensen said. “There were all-time record high beef prices.”

In 2014, a calf right off a cow could bring in about $1,500, he said. This year, there are more calves on the market, so the price likely won't be as good for sellers.

“It's reduced this year. Next year, it will be lower again,” Christensen said.

So much is out of ranchers’ control, from the weather to the White House. Deanne Vallad, who with her husband Jason has about 150 head of cattle outside Ontario, said producers have to learn to take advantage of the good times.

“When you have high highs, you'd better be getting your house in order so you can weather the low lows,” she said.

Maag agreed.

“When you're making money, you pay your debts, pay ahead a little bit. You plan ahead,” he said. “These cycles come and go. It's just the way it operates.”

Vallad sees water as a lingering challenge for local ranchers.

“In the first 100 years of this valley, when people were homesteading, you saw water usage. Now, in the next 100 years, you're going to see a big trend toward water conservation,” she said. “I tend to think it's going to change the scope of ag in Malheur County until such time as water is more abundant.”

Christensen said the federal government is another wild card in the cattle business's future. The county “ducked a bullet” when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list greater sage grouse as an endangered species, but there are lingering land-use questions regarding the birds.

Maag said the ranchers need to have a bigger say in what happens to federal rangeland.

“Nobody knows better how to handle that range than the ranchers themselves,” he said. “If they cheat on it, it's going to cheat on them.”

Christensen said ranchers also are concerned about the effect a wilderness or national monument listing in the Owyhee Canyonlands might have on the local industry.

Proponents of the protection efforts point out that grazing is allowed in wilderness and monument areas under federal law, but local producers worry such a designation might create a new baseline that would allow for grazing restrictions in the future.

“We're squarely against that. That's just unacceptable to tie up that much land in a park project,” Christensen said of the 2.5 million-acre Owyhee Canyonlands proposal, a combination of national conservation area, wilderness, and wild and scenic river designations.

“That will devastate the southern part of county. That's a lot of acres,” he added. “That ground down in there, there's a lot of big ranches, cattle and grazing down in there. There are huge implications in that.”

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