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Immigration and labor debate looms over beef

Published on 24 September 2018

As the country continues its vicious cycle over immigration and labor needs, including its impact on agricultural industries, it seems many in the beef industry continue to look away.

That’s understandable given the rocky political landscape that surrounds immigration and labor. It is difficult to navigate, and creating a balance can seem impossible.

Crop agriculture and other livestock agriculture segments – especially dairy – are no strangers to the issue. Their supply chain requires constant labor for difficult jobs that must be filled.

But many in beef production think they’re not so dependent. Most beef producers fall within the cow-calf segment, which is aging but different than the needs of feeders and packers. And those segments of beef production are starting to feel some pain.

More industry analysts and market experts are emphasizing repeatedly how packers face immense pressure on labor. Having closed a handful of slaughterhouses years ago, today’s slaughter trend is maximizing resources, and packers struggle to keep up.

They aren’t alone. A new report from CoBank on hiring in agriculture, “Help Wanted: Wage Inflation and Worker Scarcity,” highlights how labor shortages are increasing among feedyards. Rising wages have helped but still aren’t enough to fill vacancies at two larger feedlots in the report, Cactus Feeders and Friona Industries.

Will Sawyer, a lead economist of animal protein for CoBank, says the trend for packer processing is leaning toward more automation and mechanization “as we get closer to the consumer.”

“You’re seeing major investments at the packing level, in pork and poultry as well, to use mechanism and minimize labor as much as possible. At the farm level, machinery can only do so much.”

Sawyer notes as each administration grows stricter in enforcing labor laws, companies are going to want to rely less on unskilled labor.

But who is going to pay for those automations and robotics that will, as Sawyer says, make the laborer’s cutting knife unnecessary?

“The retailers today have a lot of evidence to go by that they can force food producers to cover those costs, for all kinds of things consumers are demanding,” he explains. “Then penalties for not following that are pretty significant, as far as what the consumer is willing to vote. That ends up all the way at the farm level eventually, and I’m afraid that will not be that far off.”

Our interview with Wallace will appear in full in our November issue. But the point must be made clear. If the cost of automation is going to be carried by producers – and not customers – we can no longer turn a cold shoulder to the immigration and labor debate.

“The need for production agriculture to take notice and to be more aware of what’s happening in Washington, as it relates to this issue, is probably time well spent,” says Sawyer.  end mark

David Cooper
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