The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

National Cattlemen elect pony-tailed president with ties to rival group


DENVER — On paper, Bill Donald looks like a typical National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president.

A third-generation Montana rancher, Donald runs his operation with the help of his wife and two sons.

But in person, he is something quite different. He sports a ponytail and relishes explaining his role in the founding of R-CALF USA, NCBA’s philosophical and membership rival.

Donald represents a stylistic change for the cattlemen, who are proud of their individualism but rarely diverge from a uniform of blue jeans, boots and short hair under cowboy hats. Talking with reporters after his election, Donald said he began yearning to let his hair grow when he attended the Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minn., for high school.

“The people who ran the school were more concerned with what was on my head than what was in it,” he said, noting that he kept his hair short until he graduated. “I was 18 the last time I had a haircut. I’m 58 now, so it’s been 40 years.”

It’s not clear whether Donald’s long hair has any political meaning today, but he doesn’t talk like the many cattlemen who are so proud of their conservatism. Asked by The Hagstrom Report if he is a Republican, Donald declined to answer directly, saying, “That’s personal. I vote for the best person.”

Donald’s grandfather founded the family ranch about 100 years ago near Melville, in south central Montana. Donald, his wife Betsy and two sons now run the operation known as the Cayuse Livestock Company.

Donald has served as president of the Crazy Mountain Stock Growers and the Montana Stock Growers. His fellow Montanans celebrated his unusual-for-a-rancher hairstyle at the convention by selling fake ponytails that could be attached to cowboy hats. When Donald came to the podium for the first time as president, the Montanans hooted and raised their hats with ponytails attached in salute.

Donald’s fellow NCBA leaders are taking his look in stride. “Among cattle people across the nation it’s not how you look, it’s your character, passion and integrity,” said J.D. Alexander, a Pilger, Neb., cattle feeder who as NCBA president-elect will succeed Donald in 2012.

Scott George, a Cody, Wyo., dairy farmer who as vice president is in line to take the helm in 2013, joked that he has faced his own battles as a checkoff official because some Wyoming ranchers think it is “shameful” that a dairy farmer would be leading a cattle group. “It’s about how you can help the industry,” George said.

Talk about Donald’s connection to the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund-United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) has been rampant, and Donald said he welcomed an opportunity to explain his relationship with the cattle group that is seen as a competitor to NCBA with a differing world view.

Donald said that in the late ’90s he became concerned about how truckloads of cattle from Canada coming into Montana would affect cattle prices in the U.S. In 1998 he joined an effort organized by Leo McDonnell Jr., a rancher and friend, to bring the situation to the attention of the International Trade Commission, which is supposed to deal with unfair trade practices. The ITC said it would take up the case only if they had enough ranchers organized to have standing before the commission. The R-CALF group — not yet a membership organization — filed a petition with the ITC for relief through anti-dumping and countervailing duty measures. Donald said there was a ruling in R-CALF’s favor, but the ITC said the damage was not great enough to require action.

Donald said he opposed the decision to turn R-CALF into a membership organization, but did join it for one year. Some R-CALF members later split into another organization called the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, and some industry officials claim that the existence of three cattle groups — NCBA, R-CALF and U.S. Cattlemen — makes it difficult for members of Congress to understand what cattlemen want.

NCBA membership numbers have dropped, particularly after the group raised its lowest dues rate from $50 to $100. Donald said he will try to convince ranchers who left NCBA over the dues increase to rejoin, and will remind them that the Humane Society of the United States — a group that cattlemen see as the opposition — asks people to send them $19 a month.

Donald acknowledges that R-CALF members have a very different philosophy about trade and imports than NCBA, but said it’s “unfortunate” that people won’t join NCBA if they don’t agree with it on one issue. Donald said that NCBA and the leaders of the U.S. Cattlemen agree on 85 percent of issues.

Many of the issues that Donald will face, such as government regulation, taxation and relationships with other elements of the cattle industry, are inherited. But his personal style is not. Although NCBA has had difficult relations with the Obama administration, Donald described USDA Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Services Ed Avalos as “a prince of a guy,” and said he is pleased that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has agreed to conduct an economic analysis of the proposed change to the rule governing the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Donald discussed the problems that have occurred between NCBA and the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, a USDA-appointed group of domestic beef, dairy and veal producers and beef and beef product importers which oversees the national beef checkoff program.

He spoke to the NCBA membership about the CBB issues with humility, rare for an NCBA leader.

“I’m not sure how we got where we are, but I am committed to making the relationship better,” Donald said.

“We are hooked at the hip, whether we like it or not,” Donald concluded. “We won’t compromise on principles, but we will compromise on issues.”