WASHINGTON – Western cattlemen have developed a general distrust of the government after run-ins with the Interior Department and other agencies over grazing rights, water use and various environmental issues.
In the face of expected new confrontations, however, ranchers have put aside their distaste for Washington politics and embarked on what they describe as their most intensive Capitol Hill lobbying effort.
They're looking to Congress for money to offset the costs of bringing ranches and feedlots up to stricter water quality standards proposed the Environmental Protection Agency during the final days of the Clinton administration.
"Implementing conservation practices is not cheap," said Myrna Hyde, environmental director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "In order to provide the public with the benefits they are asking for, we're asking for their help to be able to do that."
At issue is how to spend about $16 billion set aside for conservation efforts over the 10-year life of the farm bill before Congress.
Grain farmers want the spending to be focused on soil-protection efforts, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which essentially pays farmers not to plant their fields.
Cattlemen and groups representing their roughly $35 billion industry say they need that money to offset the EPA regulations for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
Designed to protect groundwater from pollution by animal waste, the new feeding rules would require smaller hog, chicken and cattle ranchers to acquire permits and adhere to stringent pollution controls.
Cattle producers predict national compliance will cost them up to $940 million per year.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has promised livestock producers the Bush administration would work with them, possibly by rewriting the feeding regulations, before enforcing the new rules.
Cattlemen are taking no chances. Their lobbying campaign has them meeting individually with senators and House members to press their agenda, and they already claim dividends.
The farm bill adopted by the House Agriculture Committee increases from $10,000 to $50,000 a year the amount of technical assistance cattlemen can get for waste-control projects like construction of manure sheds.
And farm-state senators, including Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, have said they intend to give greater consideration to livestock producers while drafting their version of the farm bill.
Merrill Karlen Jr., a rancher and feedlot operator from Reliance, S.D., said cattlemen must put aside their reluctance to deal with Washington politicians and fight for a greater share of the farm bill.
"There's just no place else to go for help," said Karlen, who is president of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association.