Pospichal ranch (copy)

The Pospichal cattle ranch in Holt County. Rainy weather has cut into hay production, meaning less to feed their cattle.

It’s unfortunate to see, but beef is now one more item on the growing list of political disagreements dividing Americans. TV host Ellen DeGeneres is among the public figures linking the cattle sector to environmental harm and urging people to eat less meat. Gina Pospichal, the wife of a Nebraska rancher, has responded to DeGeneres on Facebook, defending beef producers and receiving a surge of supportive online comments.

On this matter, the goal needs to be peaceful coexistence. A considerable segment of Americans want to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption, and that’s fully their choice to make. People deserve sovereignty over their personal lives. At the same time, many Americans remain enthusiastic fans of a traditional steak or burger — also their choice to make. And there’s no need to paint ranchers as callous in their environmental stewardship. Many Nebraska producers stand out for their concern for sound environmental management.

Cattle production makes a major contribution to Nebraska’s economy — not surprising, given Nebraska’s traditional “Beef State” moniker. Nebraska’s beef sector has a total economic impact estimated at $12.1 billion. In Iowa, the figure is $6.8 billion.

The cattle sector is an enormous part of Nebraska’s Sand Hills economy and culture, of course. The 3rd U.S. House District is home to more than 15,000 cattle operations with annual sales of $8.4 billion — more than for any other House district except one in western Kansas. Many Nebraska ranching operations have roots that go back to the 1800s.

In Iowa, the 4th U.S. House District also ranks high for cattle production among U.S. House districts. It’s No. 6 in that regard, with more than 7,000 beef operations.

But as Pospichal, a school counselor in Chambers, Nebraska, noted in the letter she posted on Facebook, many beef producers face stiff challenges. Record amounts of rain over the past year have prevented many ranchers from harvesting enough hay for their animals.

Each year Pospichal’s family “usually puts up thousands (of bales), but has done just 800 so far,” The World-Herald’s Marjie Ducey reported.

As a result, ranchers face the difficult choice either to buy feed, adding considerable production expense, or else sell a significant number of their animals. That is exactly what Pospichal’s family experienced this year, she wrote on Facebook: “This summer, I watched in tears as my husband and my father-in-law loaded up our fall-calving herd and sold them at market because we have no feed to help them survive through the winter. My father is faced with constant financial struggles as he just tries to keep the ranch afloat.”

Cattle prices haven’t reached the historic low points seen in 2016, Ducey reported, but they are still $7 below those seen last fall. “The market is stabilizing, prices are stabilizing and prices will kind of rise again,” said Cassandra Fish, an Omaha beef industry expert and consultant. “However, we are still at the peak supply from rebuilding the herd.”

Americans should be free to make their own choices about beef. But amid that debate, there’s no reason to doubt the dedication, amid great challenges, of Nebraska’s cattle producers.

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