Polis’ MeatOut Day proclamation draws ire from Routt County ranchers

Josh Taylor encourages a small group of calves to move into a holding pen where they will wait to be vaccinated, tagged and branded. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Gov. Jared Polis’ MeatOut Day proclamation has garnered sharp backlash from the agricultural community, with some ranchers saying the move is a “slap in the face” to livestock producers.

The move has inspired several counties in Colorado — Moffat, Grand and Weld counties so far — to proclaim March 20 as a day to celebrate meat rather than to avoid it.

“It felt like a slap in the face,” said Lane Iacovetto, whose husband is a fourth-generation rancher. “You would never see a no tourism day in Colorado.”

Iacovetto said it would have been different if the day was marketed as vegetarian day or something else pro-plant-based diet, but instead, the day is exclusively aimed at one of the state’s largest industries.

While Routt County has not discussed issuing a similar proclamation, Commissioner Beth Melton said commissioners are supportive of agriculture, ranching and beef production within the county.

The roughly $47 billion agriculture contributes to the Colorado economy annually makes it the state’s second-largest industry behind tourism. About $6.3 billion of that total comes from livestock production.

The proclamation signed by Polis is essentially the same as a proclamation signed by then Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2011. Polis’ office has downplayed the significance of the proclamation and pointed to the many similar proclamations made in support of agriculture.

“The governor’s office gets hundreds of requests for proclamations throughout the year and rarely declines these nonbinding ceremonial proclamations that get auto penned by the governor,” Conor Cahill, Polis’ press secretary, said in an email. “For example, the governor has issued proclamations for Agriculture Day, Colorado Farm Bureau Day and Truck Driver Appreciation Day.”

Local rancher Adonna Allen said she contacted the governor and other officials expressing her frustration with the proclamation, which she says doesn’t make sense to do when the state and its agriculture industry are reeling from the pandemic.

“His veiled attempt to support agriculture is really just an insult to those that actually try to feed and clothe our friends and neighbors for a living,” Allen said.

In Routt County, Allen said producers are under tremendous pressure from developers anytime land is not actively producing. If they cannot run cows or grow hay, it becomes difficult to make a living, and in many cases, that land can easily be sold for a high price.

While Polis has done good things for the livestock industry, Justin Warren, who buys and sells cattle for people across the country, owns a ranch in Routt County and serves as president of Routt County Cattlemen’s Association, said those things don’t get the same amount of press coverage, and most people will assume the state is not friendly to agricultural producers.

“Polis has tried to do some things for the livestock industry,” Warren said. “But that is not what people see in the news every day and on social media. All they see is that the MeatOut deal is being pushed real hard by everybody.”

This issue compounds itself when looking at the fate of the National Western Stock Show in Denver, which did not happen in 2020 because of COVID-19 and resulted in many producers going to a similar event in Oklahoma City instead.

“Now a lot of these breed associations are talking about, ‘Hey, do we want to go back to the National Western Stock Show or stay in Oklahoma City?” Warren said. “All of a sudden, you’re sitting there saying we’re not going to push for meat products in our state, so these breed associations are going, ‘OK, we see where Colorado stands.'”

The proclamation says that plant-based diets are better for the environment to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, but livestock’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions depends a lot on how the animals are raised.

In Northwest Colorado, cattle are grazed on perennial grasslands and pastures, which if managed properly, can help with reducing carbon rather than increasing it.

“That is my concern that this has become a rallying cry for something that I am not sure the science backs it up all the way,” said Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Colorado State University Routt County Extension Office. “That doesn’t mean that there are not improvements to be made in the livestock industry and helping reduce carbon emissions.”

Hagenbuch said he believes farmers and ranchers are trying to reduce their own carbon emissions. While some of the cattle raised in Northwest Colorado finish out at feedlots, many of them are part of the system that manages perennial grasslands.

“Grass evolved over eons being grazed,” Hagenbuch said. “That could be wildlife and that could be domesticated livestock. Either way, that grass does need, at some point, eating. It needs to be recycled into nutrients through the digestion system in order to build soils to come back and build better grasses.”

Essentially, livestock is a way to convert grass into protein — something the human digestive system is not capable of doing. Hagenbuch said the conversation around livestock and climate change lacks a lot of the nuance that should be included to find meaningful solutions.

“Nuanced conversation and finding common ground and balanced approaches to livestock production and commodity production, those are conversations we should be having, because farmers and ranchers are part of the climate solution, there is no doubt,” Hagenbuch said.

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