‘Checkoff’ Is $1 per Cow Sold, but It Adds Up to a Controversial Pile of Cash

Jim Dobbins checks on his cattle during calving season at his ranch near Goff, Kansas in March of 2014.

Todd Feeback / Hale Center for Journalism via Harvest Public Media

Jim Dobbins checks on his cattle during calving season at his ranch near Goff, Kansas in March of 2014.

The federal “beef checkoff” mandates a $1 payment every time a head of cattle is sold. That adds up to about $80 million a year nationwide, money that is supposed to be used to convince us to buy more beef. Nobody in the beef industry argues much about that idea.

Checkoff officials say a recent study calculated that every dollar collected by the checkoff delivers $11.20 in return. Among its successes is a series of iconic commercials called, “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.”

But there is a lot more to the beef checkoff than meets the eye. That $1 assessment, according to critics like David Pfrang and Jim Dobbins, who own small ranches in the rolling hills of northeast Kansas, flows with limited oversight to state and national interests. One major recipient is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), with headquarters in Centennial, and a powerful lobbying arm in Washington, D.C.

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Sellers must pay even if they don’t believe they have any say over who gets the money, or why. And they must pay even if they believe the fund advances the interests of multi-millionaire ranchers against their own.

“I call it the liberty tax,” Pfrang said. “We just lost some freedom and we’re not being represented.”

As many as a fourth of the nation’s 730,000 ranchers – mostly small independent farmers — have complained for years that the checkoff has become a billion-dollar bonanza for big ranchers, industry executives and giant beefpackers. Federal statistics show larger more efficient cattle operations are forcing out smaller ranchers and feedlots.

You can read the full Harvest Public Media report here.

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