BURLEY — Every day, Idaho dairymen evaluate their herds to decide who stays and who goes.
It frequently comes down to economics. If a cow is injured, ill or isn’t producing enough milk, it may be time for the slaughterhouse. About a third of Idaho’s 600,000 dairy cows will be slaughtered each year to be made into hamburger and lean cuts of beef.
“As they get older, they’re going to be less and less productive,” said Rick Naerebout, CEO of Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “All of agriculture runs on very tight margins.”
And consumers still benefit. While milk prices are low, demand for beef in the U.S. remains high. Dairy and beef are Idaho’s first and second agricultural commodities, totaling nearly 60 percent of the state’s agricultural receipts, Naerebout said.
But up until last year, Idaho had no large commercial slaughter and packing facilities for dairymen to resort to. Most of Idaho’s old dairy cows have had to travel out-of-state for their final destination.
In January, the Magic Valley got its own beef plant to meet the need for local processing. Ida-Beef, outside of Burley, says it can save dairies on freight costs and reduce the stress on animals.
“We’re pleased to see the investment and the infrastructure that supports the beef end of what we do,” Naerebout said.
Ida-Beef has 48 employees and harvests just over 100 cows per day. It’s designed to eventually process 350 to 400 cows per day. A lot of the meat is sent to food companies in the region, including one in Wilder that makes hamburgers and taco meat.
The slaughter of dairy cows can be a hard topic to grapple with, as both dairy and beef industries battle criticism for inhumane handling.
“There’s a lot of eyes watching you at a cow plant because of the humane aspect,” said John Nalivka, a beef industry analyst and president of Sterling Marketing in Oregon. “There’s just absolutely no room for error anymore.”
It can be a gruesome operation. But Ida-Beefs says local processing is safer for the cows that are nearing the end of their life, and its employees aim to use as much as the animal as possible.
The carcasses typically produce a lean ground beef that’s used for hamburger patties, sausages, hot dogs or taco meat. Some of the higher quality cuts could end up as jerky, roast beef at Arby’s or even as choice cuts at the grocery store, Ida-Beef Plant Manager William Gilger said.
Any inedible portions, except for the brain and spinal cord, are sent to a rendering plant or used to make other products, such as leather.
Some cows arrive to the slaughterhouse pregnant. Ida-Beef has a separate area for draining the fetal calf blood, saving as much as possible. IdaBeef says pharmaceutical companies in other countries pay top dollar for it.
“It’s amazing how much of the animal is used for different products,” Naerebout said.
The seven Ward brothers in Idaho have owned and operated a feedlot for beef cattle for years. But they saw that dairies had a need: Most of Idaho’s cull cows were being shipped to California and other western states.
Led by CEO Allan Ward, the brothers and two partners got a permit for a processing plant several years ago. It took a while to get all the funding in place to open.
In the meantime, CS Beef Packers — a partnership of JR Simplot Co. and Caviness Beef Packers — opened its larger plant last year in Kuna, serving both the dairy and the beef cattle industries.
The Wards’ plant is designed especially for cull cows, many of which will be too near the end of their life to be transported.
“A lot of the cows that we get, they would die on the trip down to Fresno,” Ida-Beef Quality Controller Preston Ward said.
Some might simply lay down on the truck and refuse to get up, Gilger said. According to USDA standards, a cow must be able to walk in order to pass inspection for human consumption.
And with the savings in freight, Ida-Beef says it can pay more per carcass than a California plant can.
Nalivka remains cynical on whether Ida-Beef can compete with a plant such as the CS Beef Packers, which has a capacity of processing 1,700 cows a day.
“They can out-buy them any day of the week on cows,” he said.
Gilger, however, believes Ida-Beef’s niche — a focus on cows nearing the end of their life — will keep it from competing with the larger company.
In the U.S., about 55 percent of beef consumption is ground beef, Nalivka said. And dairy cows make up an increasing amount of that.
“The dairy cows are 23 percent of all the cows in the U.S.,” he said. “But dairy cow slaughter represents 53 percent of cow slaughter.”
Milk prices have had an effect, he said. After several years of high milk production, dairymen are stepping up their cull-rate. That rate is up about 5 percent industry-wide for the year-to-date, Nalivka said.
Gilger, too, estimates “right now they’re probably culling as much as they would.”
About 72 percent of Idaho’s dairy industry is found in six counties in south-central Idaho — Twin Falls, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Cassia. Combined, 280 dairies are milking about 422,000 cows, Naerebout said.
A dairy cow starts off as a heifer that’s been separated from its mother and the rest of the adult herd — as much for its own safety as anything, he said. The calf heifer is raised for about two years before it is bred to a bull and becomes a lactating animal.
In order to keep producing milk, the cow needs to calve once a year — with a pregnancy of about 284 days. Before calving, the cow’s milk production is cut back until it reaches a “dry-off” period of about two months.
In a typical year, a single cow would be milked 305 days and could produce about 75 pounds of milk each of those days, Naerebout said.
“On average in the dairy industry, the animal is going to be about 5 years old when it’s culled,” he said.
At Ida-Beef, a USDA inspector checks each cow while it’s in the pen to make sure it’s fit for consumption. If it isn’t, the animal is condemned and sent to a rendering plant — eventually to be made into feed for other animals (but not other cows).
If the animal passes the initial inspection, it can be slaughtered for meat. But the carcass, too, has to pass a postmortem inspection before it is sanitized, chilled overnight, and then cut into usable portions.
“Henry Ford used to take parts and make cars,” Gilger said. “We take cows and we make parts.”
In the processing rooms, meat is cut, weighed and detected for metal before it can be packaged for sale. Though you won’t find a lot of “center of the plate” cuts come out of the facility, Gilger said Ida-Beef’s mission is to produce wholesome foods.
“Our cattle are last-chance gas,” Gilger said. “This is it — or there’s nothing.”
HEYBURN — A non-profit family center that helps people regardless of ability to pay become sober is looking for more community support.
OATS Family Center, in the old Heyburn Simplot processing plant complex, offers sobriety counseling services and wants to make a switch to more community funding to relieve the paperwork pressure caused by insurance reimbursement.
Last year, 314 people came to the center for help. The prior year, the center had 283 clients.
The need for substance abuse counseling and the other services like outpatient, case management, family counseling, anger management and family and life skills are increasing, said Sally Hall, one of the founders of OATS and a licensed substance abuse counselor.
One of the main services the center offers is helping clients find other resources in the community to solve their problems like help with clothing or low-income housing.
“We are really good at connecting people with resources,” Hall said.
The center also is an advocate for clients as they go through the court system.
“You see people change when they feel like they have support,” Hall said.
About 60 percent of the clients are served for free. The center receives some reimbursement through other funding sources like Medicaid and private pay insurance.
“Many of them are living at the poverty level,” Hall said. “There is a huge need in the community and we don’t turn anyone away. We are committed to serving the community.”
The center has been open for more than 11 years.
“We are seeing more of a shift towards families needing help and kids acting out,” she said.
Due to the paperwork involved in receiving insurance and Medicaid reimbursement, the center would like to shift toward being supported more through community donation, which would free up more time for the counselors to serve more people.
“We are hoping the community will help support the center as we help people re-stabilize in the community,” Hall said.
Verda Hutchison, the founder of OATS and its office manager, said she hopes to spark the interest of business sponsors along with individual donors.
“We have employers who send their employees here for help,” Hutchison said.
The center is also implementing a sponsorship program where individuals or businesses can support a client financially for a year and the clients will perform community service to pay back the help. The center also teaches sobriety skills at the jail at no cost.
“Support in the community takes a lot of time,” Hall said.
The center also focuses on recovery of the family and encourages parents to bring their children to center.
“Recovery is also about the family getting well,” Hall said.
TWIN FALLS — Peter Rickards had all but given up on Idaho.
The longtime anti-nuclear activist and repeat candidate for statewide office was tired of not getting through to voters. And after a publicized arrest for growing marijuana, his political aspirations felt more distant than ever. He put his Twin Falls home up for sale and set his sights on Oregon.
Then, while watching Republican politicians debate Obamacare alternatives on TV one night, the retired podiatrist changed his mind.
“I literally pulled out my ‘for sale’ sign and said, ‘I’m going to give this one more try,’” Rickards said. “The good news is that I have forgiven the people of Idaho. And instead of turning my back on them, I am willing to try to help one more time.”
Rickards, an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, is no stranger to running for office.
He challenged then-U.S. Rep. Mike Crapo in the 1996 Republican primary, made a bid for governor as an independent two years later, and ran against then-Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, as a Democrat in 2008.
Now he’s turning his attention once again to Congress, running as a Democrat for the District 2 seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican. He’ll face Aaron Swisher, an economist from Boise, in the Democratic primary on May 15.
Rickards said he decided to run as a Democrat this time around because he leans more to the left than to the right on social issues. But he considers himself a fiscal conservative.
While he’s eager to work on a broad range of issues, such as increasing choice in healthcare coverage and ending “unwinnable wars in the Middle East,” Rickards has two main priorities: marijuana legalization and ridding Idaho of nuclear energy and waste.
“A meltdown at INL could force the evacuation of southern Idaho,” Rickards said. “Why in the world would we take the risk of evacuating the most beautiful place in the nation?”
Instead, he suggests, the state should focus on other forms of energy, such as geothermal, solar and wind.
His other priority, the legalization of marijuana, is a matter of both ethics and economics for Rickards. If the state — or the country — were to legalize marijuana, he says, it could bring in money while reducing the costs of policing and incarceration.
“The only law that won’t be broken is the law of supply and demand,” he said. “We can tax it and regulate it and grow it here in America, or spend billions making El Chapo and the next El Chapo after him. It never stops.”
Though he worried that his 2013 arrest might impede his chances of winning an election, he won’t apologize for growing his own marijuana. He sees his crop as an act of civil disobedience.
“There’s a huge difference between an outlaw and a criminal,” Rickards said. “I’m proud to be an outlaw.”
His primary opponent, Swisher, also has a “D” next to his name. But the two differ when it comes to background and platform.
Swisher, who has worked in economics and finance, is the author of “Resuscitating America: An Independent Voter’s Guide to Restoring the American Dream.” The 2011 book serves as a blueprint of sorts for his vision if elected.
“I think a lot of the economic approaches that are taken in Washington, those on the Republican and Democratic side, are misguided,” Swisher said. “I would like to take a different approach to Washington...that will hopefully revive the economy and give us a different approach for balancing the budget.”
What might that approach look like?
“The basis of it is undoing, or reducing, the extreme level of income disparity that we have in our society,” Swisher said. “The goal is to raise wages for working people, build a stronger middle class, and then use that as a springboard for solving all sorts of societal issues, as well as fiscal issues.”
That would mean raising the minimum wage while simultaneously implementing tax reform that focuses on individuals and small businesses, Swisher said.
Also on Swisher’s to-do list: immigration and trade reform.
“Both of these would be done in a way that our immigration and trade policies are fair to American workers and don’t undermine people’s abilities to go out and earn a good living,” he said.
Swisher, like Rickards, is in favor of green energy, though his approach is different. An energy plan posted on Swisher’s campaign website calls for establishing a gradually increasing BTU tax, eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies and tax credits, and encouraging “smart growth” at INL.
“I can tell my opponent is committed to the environment, as I am as well,” Swisher said. “But I also try to research every issue and come up with a comprehensive, well-rounded knowledge of both sides, so to speak, in that issue.”
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Simpson, who is serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, in the general election in November.
But regardless of which candidate finds himself in Washington come January, it’s likely that Idaho voters won’t be seeing the last of Peter Rickards anytime soon.
“Even if I lose this time, I would consider doing it again because it’s just so invigorating. I really enjoy it,” Rickards said. “The fact is you can never change society if your name’s not on the ballot.”
SHOSHONE — It’s a crowded race for two Lincoln County Commission seats, with one incumbent who wants to see county projects through to completion and four newcomers vying for change.
Don Hudson — who has a pending lawsuit against the county commission — and Rick Ellis are facing off for the district one seat. Incumbent Roy Hubert faces challengers Larry Kerner and Roger Fields for the district three seat. Voters will decide May 15.
Lincoln County Commissioner Cresley McConnell, who was originally planning to run for reelection in district one, will resign May 5.
McConnell turned in his letter of resignation earlier this month. “I have decided to pursue other avenues in my professional career,” he wrote.
Here’s information about the candidates and what they’d like to accomplish if elected:
Ellis, 70, moved to Shoshone in the late 1970s as a construction manager for a U.S. Bureau of Land Management project. Now, he’s partially retired, but still builds and sells wood sheds.
He decided to run for county commission after finding out McConnell was going to resign.
Some of the biggest things happening in Lincoln County, Ellis said, are planning for a new courthouse, school facility issues and a sheriff’s office that’s underfunded and understaffed.
County officials are considering building a new Lincoln County Courthouse to replace the one that opened in 1905. Volunteers have been sought for a site selection committee, Ellis said.
“There’s a lot of controversy because people don’t want to see the old one go away,” he said, but it doesn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and is lacking space.
Another goal, if elected: “I would push to get the sheriff’s department funded fully with what they need,” Ellis said, and he would try to get a pay increase for deputies, who he says are paid less than in other counties. “I would push to equalize that, so we can keep what we train.”
Hudson, a 72-year-old self-employed mechanical engineer, moved north of Shoshone about seven years ago to be closer to family. He spent most of his adult life in Virginia.
Hudson ran for Idaho state representative in 2014, losing to Democratic incumbent Donna Pence, and ran again in 2016 but dropped out of the race. He has also served on several Lincoln County boards: planning and zoning, housing authority, search and rescue, and he’s currently chairman of the county’s Republican Party Central Committee.
He said he’s running for county commission “basically because it needs to be done. I waited until the last day to see if someone else was going to file, but they didn’t.”
Hudson filed a lawsuit against the commission in December 2017 and the case is pending in Lincoln County District Court. In a petition, he alleges the commission refused “to enforce the law concerning the illegal residency of Commissioner Cresley McConnell,” who he says moved out of his commission zone but stayed on the board.
Commission zones were redistricted in January — a process that hadn’t happened since 1973 and “the districts were way out of balance,” Lincoln County Clerk Brenda Farnworth told the Times-News Tuesday.
McConnell was moving into a new residence, she said, but ended up being in the same district. That caused some contention with some people, she added.
According to court records, Hudson alleges the commission gerrymandered the zone boundaries. He wanted the Lincoln County prosecuting attorney to declare the seat vacant.
In its response, the county commission denied the allegations and asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it couldn’t be filed again.
Hudson told the Times-News on Wednesday he filed the lawsuit with the help of several community members, listed in court documents as “The Lincoln County Concerned Citizens Committee.”
“In a general sense, we’re asking that the things McConnell was involved in while sitting illegally be reversed,” he said.
Lincoln County is facing many issues, Hudson said, including Shoshone School District trying unsuccessfully three times to pass a $6 million bond, and the need for a new courthouse.
New leadership and transparency are also needed on the county commission, Hudson said.
Commissioners recently got a huge raise, he said, adding the public didn’t know about it. “When those red flags go up, that’s an indicator that we need to make changes. My job is to convert these challenges into opportunities.”
Last year, the commissioners received a raise from $18,900 per year to $31,330. One of the reasons is they now meet four days a month instead of two, Farnworth told the Times-News.
Hubert, an 83-year-old Dietrich resident, has been a commissioner for seven years. He graduated from the Dietrich school system, and is a retired farmer, and vice president and manager of a bank.
“My heart is in Lincoln County,” he said. “I’ve got a vested interest.”
Hubert is running for reelection because “we have quite a few irons in the fire we want to see through,” he said.
During his time as a commissioner, he said, the county has had a “very healthy reserve” and the tax rate has decreased.
If he’s reelected, he’d like to address several topics in particular: getting a county solid waste transfer station mistakenly built on BLM land about 25 years ago moved to county-owned property, completing a project for Southern Idaho Solid Waste to generate electricity to be sold to Idaho Power and building a new handicapped-accessible courthouse.
Fields, 43, moved to Lincoln County when he was in eighth grade. He now lives north of Shoshone and works for Randy Adams Custom Farming.
He’s running for county commission because “to me, the present county commissioners suck,” Fields said, and he thinks there should be a two-term limit.
He said he previously voted for McConnell because he thought he’d do well and ruffle some feathers. “To me, he did an extremely poor job of doing it.”
Fields said he wants to make Lincoln County grow. The only thing he has seen grow, he said, is commissioners’ pay.
He said he’s also discouraged about the public school transportation system — how he has to drop his children off at a bus stop one-and-a-half miles away from home. “I plan to raise a raucous if elected.”
Fields also alleges McConnell moved into a new residence around the same time the county rezoned commission districts, he said. It could just be a coincidence, he added, but “it just looks bad.”
Kerner, 66, is a retired dairyman and truck driver who’s a lifelong Lincoln County resident, born and raised in north Shoshone. His grandsons are the fourth generation in his family to attend Shoshone schools.
“I’ve been here all my life,” he said. As for running for county commissioner, “I have the time now. I’ve seen some things in the county that didn’t quite sit with me right that the commissioners have done.”
He said he wants to prevent those issues from happening again. And he wants to get the county’s budget “straight and squared away.”
Other projects would be a new courthouse, he said, and bringing tourism to Lincoln County and how to make that better for all three communities — Shoshone, Dietrich and Richfield.