NEW YORK — CATTLEMEN in the United States are feeling a little cowed these days. Environmentalists and animal rights groups accuse them of abusing Bossy. Some Washington bureaucrats assert that too many herds are wandering around federal grazing lands, munching away the natural grass covering that is more fire resistant than the grass that replaces it, and trampling down river banks. Perhaps the worst cut of all, some nutritionists insist that it's better to eat poultry or fish than a juicy steak.
``We're being falsely accused on just a lot of things about our industry,'' says John Merrill, a cattle rancher from Texas and head of Texas Christian University's range management program. ``We're about the smallest minority group of all minority groups in the US.'' Yet, he adds, that ``minority group'' controls ``the largest block of private land in the world.'' Cattlemen have decided to fight back - trumpeting the virtues of an industry which - in terms of retail sales - equals the total dollar amount spent on pork, chicken, and turkey products in the US.
Financial analysts project relatively steady beef production, exports, and food processing in 1991. That is good news for consumers, since when herd sizes plummet (and beef supply drops), beef prices shoot upward.
The cattle industry is expected to turn in its fifth consecutive year of profitability during 1991, says Randy Blach, director of market analysis for Cattle-Fax, an industry market information and research service in Englewood, Colo. The current prosperity follows a period of economic difficulty in the early 1980s, when the combination of large herd sizes, high interest rates, drought, and tough global competition pushed many ranchers out of business.
According to Cattle-Fax, the herd size for 1991 is around 99.4 million head, slightly above the year-earlier total of 98 million. (That compares to 132 million back in 1975.) Total beef production will be about equal to last year. US per capita beef supplies will be around 68.4 lbs retail weight, down only slightly from last year. But meat products continue to be leaner. Consumer spending on beef products is expected to be about $50 billion this year, up from $48 billion last year. Finally, beef exports are expected to dip only slightly below last year's levels. During 1990, exports represented 4.5 percent of total US beef output.
Of all the various cattle groups, including cattle feeders, cow-calf producers, and exporters, the cow-calf producers will be most profitable this year, says Mr. Blach.
But if the nation's cattlemen are looking at a basically decent year, why then the great concern about their critics? Because, insist cattlemen such as Burton Eller, a Washington lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA), the critics ``are threatening our lifestyle.''
The NCA is mounting a public relations campaign to show Americans that, as a recent release maintains, ``Cattlemen are active conservationists.'' According to the NCA, a survey of its members shows that US cattle producers are ``increasing their use of conservation practices, are active in conservation programs, are reducing their use of pesticides in feed crop production, and are providing water and habitat which benefit wildlife.''
Cattlemen are particularly unhappy about adverse nutritional claims. ``Americans consume all the beef we produce,'' says Jimme Wilson, a rancher from Montana and first vice president of the NCA. That is proof enough that folks like beef products, he says. Moreover, argues Mr. Eller, there is ``about 35 percent less fat in the meat case today than five years ago.'' The average grocery cut now has a fat envelope around the meat of less than one-eighth of an inch, he says.
The NCA wants the Bush administration to intensify pressure on overseas governments - such as those of Japan and South Korea - to allow more farm imports, including red meat from the US. And cattlemen continue to grouse about what they see as the unfair dumping of beef on the world market by European nations, thus pushing down global prices.