Nation roundup for February 25


Feedlots, meatpackers closing with fewer U.S. cows

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Years of drought are reshaping the U.S. beef industry with feedlots and a major meatpacking plant closing because there are too few cattle left in the United States to support them.

Some feedlots in the nation’s major cattle-producing states have already been dismantled, and others are sitting empty. Operators say they don’t expect a recovery anytime soon, with high feed prices, much of the country still in drought and a long time needed to rebuild herds.

The closures are the latest ripple in the shockwave the drought sent through rural communities. Most cattle in the U.S. are sent to feedlots for final fattening before slaughter. The dwindling number of animals also is hurting meatpackers, with their much larger workforces. For consumers, the impact will be felt in grocery and restaurant bills as a smaller meat supply means higher prices.

Owner Bob Podzemny has been taking apart the 32,000-head Union County Feed Yard near Clayton, N.M. It closed in 2009 when a bank shut off its operating capital in the midst of the financial crisis, and Podzemny said he doesn’t see reopening after struggling through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“There just are not that many cattle in this part of the country no more, and it is not profitable to bring them in and feed them, so it is shut down,” Podzemny said.

He’s now feeding a few cattle in another feedlot, buying them at about 450 pounds and growing them to 800 to 850 pounds. He then sells them to others who bring them to the typical 1,200- to 1,300-pound slaughter weight.

“It is making a little money now on just growing feeders and selling them as feeders rather than finishing them all the way out,” Podzemny said. “We do what we got to do to survive, you know.”

Cattle numbers have been falling for years as the price of corn used to feed animals in feedlots skyrocketed. The drought accelerated the process, but many feedlots were able to survive at first because ranchers whose pastures dried up weaned calves early and sent breeding cows to be fattened for slaughter.

But now far fewer livestock than normal remain on the farms. And, ironically, if it rains this spring and summer, even fewer animals will go into feedlots because ranchers will hold back cows to breed and rebuild their herds.

Texas, the largest beef-producing state, has been particularly hard hit with a historic drought in 2011 from which it still hasn’t fully recovered.

“Most of the bad news is in Texas,” said Dick Bretz, an Amarillo broker who specializes in selling feed yards and other agribusinesses. “That is where I see most of the empty yards, that is where I see most of the interest in selling yards and where I see the least interest in buying yards.”

He recently dismantled a 7,000-head feed yard in Hereford, Texas, for a new owner who had bought it for the land, not the business. The previous owner had lost the property to foreclosure, and the facility was in very poor condition and would have cost too much to repair, he said.

When corn prices first spiked to $8 a bushel nearly four years ago, about 70 big feed yards went up for sale in the High Plains feeding area that includes Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, Bretz said. Today, there are 10 and 15 feed yards for sale in the region, mostly in Texas. Bretz said he knows of 15 more that are empty, three recently dismantled and two others now being torn down.

Feed yards typically employ one worker per 1,000 head of cattle, so even big ones may not have more than a few dozen workers. But they supply meatpacking plants, which have much bigger workforces, and feedlot closures could herald greater unemployment to come.

Cargill Beef, one of the nation’s biggest meatpackers, temporarily closed a slaughterhouse in Plainview, Texas, earlier this year, laying off 2,000 workers. The operation had been one of four meatpacking plants in the Texas Panhandle, and the annual economic loss to the region is estimated at $1.1 billion — a “major chunk of that economy,” said Steve Amosson, an economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Amarillo.

Cargill is moving what business remained at the plant to slaughterhouses in Friona, Texas; Dodge City, Kan.; and Ft. Morgan, Colo. That will allow those plants to run near capacity and more consistently give their workers full paychecks with 40 hours per week, spokesman Mike Martin said.

“By idling, we are retaining both the plant (in Plainview) and the property for potential future use,” Martin added. “And the hope is that at some point some years down the line, the cattle herd will be rebuilt and there will be a need for additional processing capacity.”

Most experts estimate the cattle feeding industry now has an excess capacity of between 20 and 25 percent, CattleFax market analyst Kevin Good said. The meatpacking industry has an excess capacity of 10 to 15 percent — even after the recent closure of Cargill’s Plainview plant.

Given the cost of transporting cattle, most of the nation’s feed yards and slaughterhouses are in the big cattle-producing states of the High Plains. While the industry has been gradually shifting north from Texas into areas that are expected to more rapidly recover from the drought, businesses in Kansas and Nebraska are struggling too.

In southwestern Kansas, Lakin Feed Yard manager Steve Landgraf said his operation is down to 75 percent of capacity and he expects it to be less than half full within the next couple of months. For every two animals now going out of his lot for slaughter, only one is coming into it.

With a capacity of 15,000 head, the yard now employs 14 people. But with normal attrition, Landgraf anticipates he’ll be down to 10 or 11 workers by spring, and he may reduce their hours.

Still, with little debt, Landgraf says he’s in a better position than some.

“Some people are probably going to go broke because they aren’t going to have the occupancy,” he said.

Americans spent over $53 billion on pets last year

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The economy may have remained sluggish last year but Americans refused to scrimp on their pets, with animal lovers spending upwards of $53 billion on food, veterinary care, kennels and other services in 2012.

That’s up 5 percent from 2011, when spending first broke the $50 billion barrier, says the American Pet Products Association, a trade group based in Greenwich, Conn. And APPA President and CEO Bob Vetere predicts another 4 percent gain this year.

At about $34.3 billion, food and vet care represented about two-thirds of total spending, with money spent on supplies and over-the-counter medications rising by more than 7 percent. Spending on the growing market of alternative vet care, such as acupuncture, totaled about $12.5 billion.

Vetere says spending on services like grooming, boarding, hotels and pet-sitting grew nearly 10 percent during 2012 to almost $4.4 billion.

Anti-communist oaths persist despite court rulings

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — It has been just shy of 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Washington state law barring members of the Communist Party from voting or holding public-sector jobs is unconstitutional.

Evidently, that is not enough time to remove it from the books.

Washington is one of a handful of states with similar laws still in existence despite their having been declared unconstitutional decades ago.

With few exceptions — most notably Georgia, where an anti-communist oath was administered to incoming Dunwoody City Councilmembers as recently as last year — the laws are treated as part of a bygone era, not unlike state statutes prohibiting interracial marriage, the last of which was removed from Alabama’s books in 2001 even though the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1967.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, first introduced a measure to repeal Washington state’s anachronistic anti-subversives law last year, figuring, he says, that it would be an unceremonious end to a dead-letter statute originating from a dark period in our nation’s history.

He was wrong. Though his bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, it did so on a party-line vote, with four Republicans opposed.

With only so much political capital to expend on contentious legislation, House Democratic leaders declined to move it forward, and it never made it to the floor for a vote.

This year, Fitzgibbon lowered his sights, introducing House Bill 1062 with the understanding that it likely would not even get out of committee.

By the end of Friday, as a key deadline for policy-related bills passed without the bill coming up for a committee vote, that understanding was confirmed.

“There are some (Democratic lawmakers) that think this is a bad political issue for us, but I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t think there is a lot of fear in our state these days about the prospects of a communist takeover.”

That may be, but several decades removed from the Red Scare, any suggestion of kowtowing to communists can still inflame passions.

After Fitzgibbon spoke in favor of the bill in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month, Rep. Matt Shea, a conservative Republican from Spokane Valley, was ready with a sharp rejoinder.

“For the large Ukrainian, Russian, North Korean and Chinese populations in the state who fled communism — including my wife, whose father was arrested by the KGB, who suffered horrible persecution, whose friends were sent to the gulag in Russia — do you see this as a little bit of a slap in the face to them that communism is not subversive?”

Responded Fitzgibbon: “I don’t believe we persecute people based on their political beliefs in Washington state, and I would say that applies to communists as well as anybody else.”

In addition to Washington state and Georgia, Pennsylvania and California have laws requiring state workers to take an oath swearing they are not subversives or members of a group dedicated to overthrowing the government. At least five other states — Connecticut and Virginia among them — have laws prohibiting subversives from working in emergency management. Illinois has a statute barring communists from seeking elected office.

Thanks to a series of 1960s U.S. Supreme Court rulings that found them to be unconstitutional, those laws have long been all-but unenforceable.

The ruling that struck down Washington state’s statute on subversive activities, handed down in 1964, found that the definition of a subversive group was too vague.

Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that Eugene Frank Robel, a worker at the Todd Shipyard in Seattle, had been wrongly fired from his job building warships over his membership in the Communist Party.

“Robel put the nail in the coffin” for laws limiting communists from public-sector jobs, says University of Washington Law Professor Stewart Jay. “If you can’t fire (a communist) working in national defense, what can you do?”

But while the Supreme Court struck down loyalty oaths that predicate public-sector employment on a lack of affiliation with a subversive group, it has upheld less-expansive pledges to defend the United States from its enemies and uphold the Constitution.

Including those that also have anti-subversives oaths, at least 13 states have such laws on their books, including Florida, Tennessee and Arizona.

In California, Marianne Kearney-Brown, a math instructor at California State University East Bay who refused to take such an oath as a Quaker and a pacifist was fired from her post in 2008 before swiftly being reinstated and assured that she would not be forced to take up arms.

Periodically, a lawmaker seeking to stem the perceived tide of cultural decline will propose a new loyalty oath. Last month, a Republican state lawmaker in Arizona, Rep. Bob Thorpe, proposed legislation requiring high school students to swear an oath defending the Constitution before being allowed to graduate. That measure, House Bill 2467, is pending.

In general, though, such efforts are on the wane — a state of affairs not lost on communists themselves.

“It’s a good thing to get rid of these laws,” says Libero Della Piana, vice chair of the Communist Party USA. “But the reality is that people are more worried about foreclosures on their houses than subversives in student government.”

ND school investigating fans in KKK-style hoods

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A North Dakota high school principal says appropriate action is being taken after three students briefly donned Ku Klux Klan-style white robes and hoods Friday night during a state hockey semifinal game.

The photo caused an uproar on Twitter when it was posted by 19-year-old Shane Schuster, who was seated with some friends at Ralph Engelstad Arena when something in the student section across the rink caught his eye.

“I thought, ‘Are those KKK hoods?’ I couldn’t believe it,” Schuster said. “I was shocked.”

Schuster said he focused his camera phone and snapped a photo, later uploading it to Twitter.

Kristopher Arason, Red River’s principal, said the school’s investigation determined that the students put on the attire just after Red River’s first goal and wore it for about 30 seconds to a minute. The teens removed the outfits after students in the section told them it was offensive, he said.

“We, as a school, are extremely disappointed with the behavior of these three students,” Arason said in a statement sent to The Associated Press on Saturday. “This behavior is not a representation of our school or student body.”

Arason said administrators were notified of the incident at the completion of the game. The students and their parents have been contacted and “appropriate action is being taken,” he said.

Arason did not indicate what disciplinary action, if any, the three unidentified students could face.

Red River topped Fargo’s Davies High School 2-0 to advance to Saturday night’s North Dakota Boys State Hockey Tournament title game against Grafton-Park River.

Davies High School is named in honor of Ronald Davies, the former federal judge from Fargo whose 1957 rulings integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. — a pivotal event in the civil rights movement.

The photo that Schuster posted on the social media site shows the three hooded fans in the middle of the Red River Roughriders section, in which everyone is dressed in white as part of a “whiteout.” The post had been retweeted 75 times by late Saturday afternoon, with many users expressing their outrage.

The hockey tradition of encouraging fans to all wear all white was started more than 25 years ago by the original Winnipeg Jets — which currently are the Phoenix Coyotes. In 1987, Jets fans donning white shirts and jerseys packed Winnipeg Arena to watch the team take on the Calgary Flames in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The practice has since spread to the college and high school levels.

Arason said Red River has a tradition of wearing a different color for each of the three days of the state tournament in accordance with the team’s colors. Roughrider fans wore black for the first day, white for the second and red for the final day.

Report: Athletes cash in on Calif. workers’ comp

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s workers’ compensation system has awarded millions of dollars in benefits for job-related injuries to thousands of professional athletes, including many who played for out-of-state teams, according to a report.

Sports leagues and their insurers are working to stop the practice, which has paid an estimated $747 million to about 4,500 players since the early 1980s, according to the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/XLiSkD ).

Some of the athletes played as little as one game in California.

Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, got a $199,000 settlement for injuries related to football. This came despite the fact Davis was on the roster of a Colorado team and played just nine times in the Golden State during an 88-game career, the newspaper said.

Among other sports stars receiving settlements were NBA star Moses Malone, who was awarded $155,000, and Dallas Cowboys great Michael Irvin, who received $249,000.

The athletes are taking advantage of a provision in state law that provides payments for the cumulative effect of injuries over years of playing.

The benefits usually come as lump-sum settlements but sometimes provide lifetime medical services.

California taxpayers are not responsible for these payments; workers’ compensation is an employer-funded program. Anyone who is employed in the state for any period of time can be eligible for benefits to pay for medical expenses and compensate for work-related disabilities.

“The system is completely out of whack right now,” said Jeff Gewirtz, vice president of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, told the Times.

Players, their lawyers and their unions plan to fight to protect these payouts. They say some pros, particularly football players, have short careers and end up with costly, debilitating injuries that aren’t sufficiently covered by league disability benefits.

In addition to the cumulative benefits, California also offers a longer window to file a claim than other states.

“California is a last resort for a lot of these guys because they’ve already been cut off in the other states,” said Mel Owens, a former Los Angeles Rams linebacker who is now a compensation lawyer.

Legislation in Sacramento being drafted by team owners would not limit the ability of athletes for the Los Angeles Lakers, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and other in-state teams to seek cumulative trauma benefits under California law, the Times said. However, it would protect those teams from being hit by big claims from out-of-state players, who might have spent just a few weeks at a training camp with a California team at some point in their careers.

A legislator to sponsor the bill is expected to be named next week.

 

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