By Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy

Regular readers of NFU’s Climate Column know there are many ways farmers can mitigate the negative effects of climate change. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers farmers technical and financial support to help interested farmers mitigate climate change and become more climate resilient. In every state throughout the U.S., the State Conservationist considers the advice of bodies like the State Technical Committee to identify key conservation priorities. The state NRCS office then focuses resources and programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to address the specific concerns so identified. Farmers can secure more support for practices and management decisions that work toward those state priorities.

In Missouri, one of the conservation goals set by NRCS is improving soil health. In prior Climate Columns, we’ve discussed how different grazing practices can improve soil health, securing climate and other environmental benefits. NRCS can share technical and financial support with interested producers to design and install the infrastructure necessary for prescribed grazing.

As valuable as NRCS’s support is, there are significant obstacles to greater adoption of prescribed grazing in Missouri. Specifically, bringing the end product of prescribed grazing to consumers can be challenging. There are relatively few slaughterhouses that can work with farmers who finish cattle on pasture because operations of that kind tend to be smaller and navigate more variables than larger feedlots. A March 2016 report completed by University of Missouri Extension entitled Missouri Beef Value-Added Study notes the potential for and economic benefit of processing more beef in the state, saying “Missouri livestock producers would be able to process more of their animals locally.” Missouri producers, given more prospective places to sell cattle, would have more discretion as to how they operate, possibly including more intensively managed grazing. The study further notes that more, and more diversely scaled, slaughter and packing facilities could have significant economic benefits for communities throughout Missouri.

There are hurdles that prevent smaller-scale beef processing from rapidly scaling up in Missouri. Regulatory burden rests heavily on smaller processors, managing labor and facilities is difficult with smaller orders, and profitably utilizing byproducts from livestock processing is harder at the local or regional scale. But there are significant opportunities as well- beef produced for such markets can fetch a premium, and some of the challenges processors face in maintaining reliable volume can be mitigated by having strong relationships with producers, including organizing these businesses as farmer-owned cooperatives. USDA’s Rural Development agency offers grants and loans with favorable terms to run feasibility studies or actually build out such businesses in farm communities.

Are you a cattle operator? Would you take steps to bring more processing options to your area? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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