Making Money Count In Montana

By Kayla Sargent


Montana cattlemen contribute nearly $1.8 million into the mandatory beef checkoff each year.  These checkoff funds are intended to promote beef, fund research and education, and other promotional campaigns. But pending litigation has a large portion of Montana’s contributions tied up in a frozen account until the case is settled.

Today more than ever, consumer dynamics are rapidly changing and the beef industry is catching the blame for climate change, health issues, animal welfare accusations, and a myriad of other anti-meat issues.  Leo McDonnell, owner and operator at Midland Bull Test and past Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) representative, says he is frustrated with the current status of the checkoff.

“These are lean times and every buck matters,” he said.  “I don’t appreciate the fact that my money is sitting there doing nothing when the industry is facing all these critical issues that have popped up the past couple years.  I want it to be out there working for me.”

Historically, half of the producer’s mandatory dollar-per-head payment returns to the Montana Beef Council (MBC) for promotion and education in the state, nation, and around the world. After a lawsuit brought forth by R-CALF USA in 2016, Montana producers are now required to sign a consent form in order for 50 cents to return to MBC’s budget — otherwise it is simply held in a savings account, MBC Executive Director Chaley Harney explained.  MBC’s program budget has been slashed by 66 percent since 2016 — from $581,265 to $192,565 this year.

“We have, over the past few years, really tried to make it as lean as possible,” Harney said.

Many past MBC contractor projects have had to be put on hold as the funds simply aren’t available. Harney also explained that while the administration roles have become more burdensome, over the past three years, the administration budget has increased less than two percent.

“The work has significantly changed,” she said.  “Obviously with the processing of all the paperwork and the work of trying to communicate to 11,000 producers about it, we’ve certainly shifted our focus.  We’ve had to move away from a lot of beef demand-building programs.  We used to do a lot of in-house programs like cooking classes and retail work, but we’ve had to completely slash all of that.”

That’s why McDonnell decided to sign a consent form to return his 50 cents to the state.

“The MBC is always out there, they do a lot of good.  When I sat on the CBB, I would go to a couple of the MBC meetings every year and the people that represent you are very engaged and passionate about what they do. They keep beef out in front of as many events as they can and have a lot of impressions on people.”

Harney shared a letter from a fourth grade student in Western Montana who participated in the annual farm fair MBC helps fund.  The students visit multiple “stations” learning about different sectors of agriculture at each.  When the tour is over, they are served a cheeseburger lunch.

“We got a thank you letter for supporting the event and he said, ‘my favorite part of the day was the cheeseburger because my parents are vegetarian so I don’t get to eat meat.’,” Harney said with a smile.  “Right there was just one neat impact we were able to make through a very small amount — less than one thousand dollars of support to that program.  People think that everyone eats beef in Montana, but that isn’t the case.  We still have plenty of work to do here.”

Harney said MBC’s Board of Directors, made up of Montana producers representing cow-calf operations, feedlots, auction markets, retail, and meat processors, decides each year what portion of the budget should be used locally, nationally, and even internationally.

McDonnell, being a “big Fair Trade guy and great believer in exports”, said sending money to the United States Meat Export Federation (USMEF) is one area he sees much benefit.

“Keeping half the beef checkoff dollar here in Montana allows us to send even more dollars to the USMEF, which is then matched dollar for dollar by USDA to promote beef and beef byproducts in foreign countries.  It’s truly one of the great success stories of the beef checkoff.”

He also mentioned the Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative that targets consumers in one of the most densely populated areas of the nation.

“The eastern United States is home to big beef eaters,” McDonnell said.  “From D.C. on up to New York City, they love their beef.”

But with a restricted budget, Harney said the majority of the MBC funds are currently staying in state.

Beyond promotion, McDonnell said one of the most critical projects the checkoff funds in today’s market is research.  Through beef checkoff funding, scientists have studied the value of cattle on the environment, the nutritional quality of beef, the sustainability of the beef industry, and more.

“When you look at the issues long term that are going to have the most significant impact on our industry, that the checkoff can be helpful with, I think it’s the idea that cows are hurting our environment,” McDonnell said.  “It’s created a platform, mostly with fake, antiquated science that no longer holds up, for anti-beef groups and for artificial meat groups.”

He said a lot of beef checkoff funded research is now being used by proactive groups “that understand the importance of cattle in our environment and that understand the importance of beef as a healthy part of the nutritional program.”

“I don’t think we should be afraid of what’s happening,” he explained.  “We live in a capitalistic society, we’re always going to have threats and competition.  The key is to take these challenges and turn them into opportunities to tell your story better.”

Leo McDonnell and Montana Beef Council Executive Director Chaley Harney discussed the consent form before McDonnell signed to have half of his checkoff dollar returned to the state beef council.

He said the sustainability research, greenhouse gas emissions studies, and the recent rollout of “sustainable ranch” videos on social media by the beef checkoff are a result of some of these upcoming threats.

“I think it’s made us a better industry.  I think it’s helped our product.  I mean, obviously, look at the price of beef today, it’s bringing a tremendous premium over pork and poultry.  So there’s been a lot of good come out of these challenges.  The thing is, you need somebody that can progress and research in a way that doesn’t carry policy with it and the checkoff has done a great job of that.”

He said while sitting on the CBB, he witnessed firsthand the careful science that goes into the research.

“They don’t create fake facts. Whatever we put out has got to stand the test.  They aren’t going to put anything out that can be discredited, based on facts anyway. So, no careless statements and no careless research,” McDonnell said.  “I think that’s what makes it so powerful with some of these doctors and supporters outside of our industry.  They trust what we’ve put out there.”

Harney added that it’s important to remember Montana “is not immune” to any of these misconceptions and attacks on the beef industry.  But with limited funding, the MBC isn’t able to commit money to research efforts.

“Other than responding to news articles or issues that come up locally, we haven’t been able to commit much to that,” she said. “We’ve relied on the national office for help in monitoring what is going on on that front.”

She noted that with major investors behind fake meat and recent ‘Impossible Burger’ rollouts in Red Robin and Burger King, anti-beef platforms need to be on the industry’s radar.

“We need to do everything we can to keep beef relevant, keep beef the center of the plate, and keep ‘Beef. It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner’,” Harney reiterated.

McDonnell concurred as he signed his consent form.

“There’s always going to be competition develop when you are fortunate enough to live in a free market society like we have in the U.S.  But isn’t it nice to know, with everything going on out there today, that there is one program solely focused on promoting and telling the story behind beef production? Whether one agrees with how it is managed or who the contractors are, and I’ve had differences with certain contractors on multiple issues, the fact remains— suing to take Montana’s share of the checkoff dollar away from MBC is not the answer.  There are better ways to address those concerns without destroying the checkoff.  It would be a shame to lose this one ‘shining star’ whose only job is to promote beef every single day.”

MBC Budget by the Numbers

There are 11,845 beef producers in Montana, according to the 2012 Census Report.  This equates to an average beef checkoff collection of roughly $1.5 – $1.8 million.

In 2017, only 2,733 of those producers signed consent forms to return money to the state.  In 2018, 2,988 producers signed forms.

So far this year, 1,720 producers have signed a form, meaning just halfway through the fiscal year, MBC has met 76 percent of their proposed budget.   But, the proposed program budget is only $192,565 — a mere 44 percent of the full program budget prior to the lawsuit.  Prior to the lawsuit, the 2016 MBC program budget was $581,265.

To obtain a consent form, call MBC at (406) 656-3336, stop by the office, or download the form at


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