by: Lisa Bryant
Cowboy Connection, Designs & Communications

One small voice can easily be ignored. When that sound is amplified with more than 50,000 other voices, a powerful alliance demands attention. Ten years ago, several state cattlemen's leaders noticed a need for a unified front and developed the Southeastern Livestock Network (SLN).

“In 2004, USDA came out with a proposed rule that we were going to mandatory animal identification,” said Billy Powell, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen's Association and an SLN founder. “We had just had three cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in the United States and our import market had gone in the tank.”

Powell said the state cattlemen's associations in the Southeast originally formed the group to address concerns that small producers would be forced out of business with the regulation. “A person with 30 head of cows and one bull can sell out in 30 minutes with two trips to the stockyards,” Powell said.

So 10 state associations formed an LLC governed by five managers elected by cattlemen that year. (Florida Cattlemen's Association later joined the group.) The original organization raised its concern about the proposal's structure all the while researching and implementing means of cattle identification and traceability through electronic ear tags and software programs. USDA eventually opted for a voluntary national system, but required states to implement a system.

While working with state veterinarians to create identification regulations, SLN saw another opportunity. “I'm originally from Alabama,” said Dave Maples, executive vice president of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association and an original driving force of the network. “I got to thinking my dad sells cattle in Alabama. If a Kentucky cattleman buys them, they have to come across Alabama's system, through Tennessee and into Kentucky. Then they get on a truck and they head to Oklahoma. That's a lot of state veterinarians with different regulatory requirements.” Working together with state veterinarians, SLN encouraged a protocol to encourage easier interstate transportation through one set of health papers acceptable from state to state.

Working across state lines, another major accomplishment has been the improvement in reputation of area cattle, said Steve Downs of Downs Family Farms in Lebanon, Ky., and current chair of the SLN managers.

“Southeastern feeder cattle didn't have a good reputation 15 to 20 years ago,” he said. “Buyers discounted feeders from our region because our reputation just wasn't that good because of problems with sickness of the calves.

“We want our cattlemen to take home as much money as the market will allow, and our goal is to inspire confidence in our cattle. We want to put more dollars in cattlemen's pockets and keep them in business.

“We've come together as a group to build a better cattle herd with proven genetics and health programs and do a better job of marketing and raising our calves.”

Downs said order buyers he talks to say the quality of Southeastern cattle has improved in the past two years, and added that producers are now receiving premium prices.

Another key role of SLN has been to place a credible seat at the table to discuss regulatory issues that affect the Southeast's 25 percent of the nation's cowherd, according to Jim Collins, SLN director of industry relations. SLN has worked on issues such as antibiotic use, animal welfare, market changes and animal traceability.

"Over the past decade, SLN has proven to be a valuable partner with National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) in fighting against legislation and regulations in Washington, D.C. to protect cattle producers, not only in the Southeast, but across the country,” said Colin Woodall, NCBA vice president, government affairs.

“One thing we do each year is bring congressional staff members out of the district onto our cattle operations and show them the issues,” Collins said. “We put a face on the perspective from our part of the country and let those congressional staff members see the whole equation and serve as a resource for them whenever they need it.”

SLN's role has evolved since inception, but the leaders are poised to take on challenges to the region's cattlemen. “We want to continue to move the vision and the goals of the individual producers and the member states to be responsive to the direction the industry may take as it relates to meeting consumers' needs and their desires for the premium, wholesome product we produce, Collins said. “We want to be ahead of the curve in recognizing industry trends for our member states to communicate to members or to respond to issues that evolve quickly or over time. Down the road, we are talking about greater communication for our producers to understand how what they produce on a day-to-day basis fits in the bigger picture.”

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