Sort & Cull

The Long Cattle/Short North Korea Spread

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst

The first time I interviewed for a job at a major feedlot, the questions lobbed high in my strike zone were quickly taken downtown, one fat pitch after another.

"Yes sir, graduated with a double-major in animal science and ag econ.

It meant an extra year of tough studies and more noise at the Fiji House. But I just couldn't chose between my two great passions.

"Yes sir, I gobble-up 60-hour work weeks like candy. Saturdays and Sundays are fine. Whatever it takes to keep the cattle healthy and well fed.

"Yes sir, the future of the beef industry looks so bright to me that I don't dare take off my sunglasses. You may think it sounds crazy, but I see a time when U.S. steaks and burgers will be sold even in the most remote corners of the earth."

I won the job in a walk, and to this time day believe Dad's ownership of the company had very little to do with it. To quote the poster child of nepotism Jared Kushner: What's the use of having connections if you don't use them?

Yet Jared and I tremble at how a similar interview in cattle country might go today. The stern gaze and discernment of the HR department might be quite different as it persistently searches for a completely different skill set.

"No sir, I didn't take a single course in geopolitics, international diplomacy, or global game theory. They all looked interesting, but when you're on the meat grading team it can be tough to plan your time on campus.

"No sir, my command of Mandarin is limited. But I do order freely from most Chinese menus, at least those heavily pictured. As far as currency manipulation is concerned, it's not exactly my wheelhouse.

"That said, I am willing to Google.

"No sir, I have not read any psychological studies of Kim Jong-un. In fact, my sum total knowledge of North Korea is pretty much tied to selected reruns of M*A*S*H*. By the way, do you guys still have stuff like pens, water tanks, and cattle?"

So much for my efforts to spoof the ever-changing job description of the successful beef producer. While even naïve city slickers no longer imagine the horseback business sense of Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates, few outside the closest catch-pens probably appreciate the demanding purview and expertise required of modern cattle marketers.

On any given business day, ranchers and feedlot managers may find it necessary to track a wide range of economic variables critically in play beyond traditional commodity storefronts, wildcards ranging from the dollar exchange rate to the 30-day Libor to the Baltic Dry Index.

Although cattlemen are reminded time and again each day that the feed truck they're driving is not their Grandfather's Oldsmobile, I think there's a new marketing challenge in the spring air, one so simultaneously crucial and difficult it makes the historical perils of the Chisholm Trail look like child's play.

In short, that new challenge involves the ability to commingle and interpret two great inscrutables: China and Donald J. Trump.

Since sent packing more than 13 years ago by irrational BSE fears, U.S beef exports have been fitfully struggling in a Chinese finger trap of sorts. Periodically, some diplomat or trade representative dropped a suggestive line of reinstatement, enough to momentarily flood the salivary glands of American cattlemen. But the flashing red light never seemed to change.

A stronger strain of beef trade hope appeared to grow through 2016 with an increasing number of high-placed Chinese officials noting real signs of progress. Indeed, just before the election last fall, Premier Li Keqiang told an audience in New York City that China would soon allow imports of beef from the U.S.

Had bulls finally stormed the China shop?

Yet six weeks later, Donald Trump, who had emblazoned his presidential campaign with anti-China rhetoric (e.g., "currency manipulator," "dirty-dealing opportunist," guilty of economic "rape"), staged one of the greatest upsets in election history by defeating Hillary Clinton.

Suddenly, China's intentions regarding the acceptance of U.S. beef were once again cast in the big muddy.

While President-Elect Trump and China perhaps shared an admiration of "walls," the immediate potential of a new partnership clearly seemed more adversarial than cooperative. Fortunately, for the beef industry, the new Trump administration successfully claimed "an educated reassessment of China, the Pacific Rim, and the needs of global security" as a top accomplishment of its first 100 days.

As far as I can tell, the thorny problem of North Korea was a key chapter in President Trump's education. He learned (among other economic complexities) that the management of this rogue state and its looney tunes leader pretty much required some kind of positive working relationship with China. That valuable lesson will hopefully serve the critical cause of world peace and stability.

Though of secondary importance, Trump's enlightenment has facilitated this week's happy news that China has formally agreed to allow imports of U.S. beef, on certain conditions, by July 16. What do "certain conditions" mean? Given the qualifiers expressed last fall, I assume that China will only allow beef that can be systematically verified as coming from animals under 30 months of age. Our lack of a national cattle ID program could make this requirement somewhat problematic.

Nevertheless, it promises to be a clear and welcomed start.

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