Coloradans who participated in the great, governor-inspired meat battle of 2021 either tore into a juicy steak Saturday or opted for a vegan burger and a side of veggies.
But last weekend’s fight, prompted by Gov. Jared Polis’ proclamation of MeatOut Day, was nothing compared to a brewing battle over what ranchers are calling the worst assault on the livestock industry in Colorado history.
A proposed 2022 ballot initiative would revamp the code on animal cruelty, defining as “sex acts” many common farm practices for assisting reproduction or checking an animal’s reproductive organs. It would also require that cows, hogs and other livestock get to live at least 25% of their natural lives before heading to the slaughterhouse, which ranchers argue would devastate Colorado’s agriculture economy.
Cattle are typically slaughtered for beef around age 2, but under the proposal, that would change to age 5. By then, the meat is no longer fit for tender steaks, the extra age making cuts tough and unappetizing, say ranchers who fear the proposal will make it to the ballot box.
The title board at the Secretary of State’s Office last week gave the ballot initiative’s organizers the go-ahead to start collecting signatures. As with all other citizen-generated measures — including the wolf reintroduction measure that narrowly passed last year, much to the aggravation of cattle ranchers — this one requires 124,632 signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot.
“This would be the largest policy shift in livestock production in the history of the United States,” said state Rep. Richard Holtorf, a third-generation cattle rancher in Washington County.
The Eastern Plains Republican doesn’t doubt that the animal rights group — called PAUSE for Protect Animals from Unnecessary Suffering and Exploitation — will get the required signatures. Registered voters, especially those walking the streets in Denver and Boulder, are unlikely to understand the full implications of the proposal, he said. The only question city dwellers will hear, he said, is whether they want to ban sex with animals.
“They will have urbanites who in many cases don’t know where a hamburger comes from, don’t know where a lamb chop or pork roast or even the toppings on their pizza come from, and they will be asked the simple question,” he said. “Who would want sex with animals?”
The proposal removes the livestock exemption in state statute for animal cruelty and expands the definition of a sex act with an animal. The new language says that sex acts with an animal include “any intrusion or penetration, however slight, with an object or part of a person’s body into an animal’s anus or genitals.”
Ranchers say that would prevent them from performing artificial inseminations, embryo transfers, pregnancy checks, and a host of other common practices.
The ballot measure also defines animals’ natural lifespans: 20 years for a cow, 15 for a pig, eight for a chicken, six for a rabbit. Each must get to live at least a quarter of its natural life before going to harvest, it says.
Holtorf, who accused the initiative’s backers of failing to consult with the livestock industry or experts in veterinary medicine, said the group got the natural lifespans wrong. “The oldest cow I’ve ever seen is 15 or 16 years and then they die of old age,” he said. “I don’t know where they get their numbers, but they are not grounded in reality.
“People in my district aren’t out there abusing animals. That is their livelihood. These continuous attacks on rural Colorado from urban activists are what make the urban-rural divide wider and wider and wider. They have no desire to understand or talk with rural Colorado and people in our industry.”
Farm animals would get same protections as dogs, cats
Alexander Sage, one of two people listed with the Secretary of State’s Office as backers of the initiative, said he consulted veterinarians but not the livestock industry. Backlash from the ranching community has been fierce, he said.
“About once a day, I get a phone call, a Facebook message or an email with someone at least talking in a condescending tone telling me about what I know and that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing or simply venting with curse words,” he said. “It’s not extraordinarily surprising.”
Sage said the goal of the initiative is to “extend the scope of compassion and reduce cruelty to animals.” Its backers want to protect farm animals the same way dogs, cats and other pets are protected, said Sage, who said he is a Broomfield data scientist who has not previously been involved in animal rights politics.
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“Generally, you are allowed to abuse, neglect, overdrive and overwork any animal” that isn’t a pet, he said. The language in the proposal would not prevent spaying, neutering or helping an animal safely give birth, and it would not prohibit reproductive care that benefits an animal’s health, Sage said.
“We didn’t feel that slaughtering baby animals was humane,” he said. “The average Coloradan, based on a lot of market research, wants the livestock that finally goes on their plate to not be unnecessarily abused.”
The group is planning for the November 2022 ballot and asking for volunteers to help with signature-gathering events.
Polis says measure would “destroy jobs”
Ranchers, already annoyed at the governor over MeatOut Day, called on Polis to speak against the proposed ballot measure before it gains traction. In response to a question from The Colorado Sun, governor’s spokeswoman Shelby Wieman said Polis “agrees with farmers and ranchers that the PAUSE ballot initiative would hurt Colorado and destroy jobs, and he opposes it.”
The relationship between the administration and the agriculture industry is in rough shape, evidenced by major backlash against Polis’ anti-meat proclamation. MeatOut Day prompted eat-beef parties and extra-meat menus across rural Colorado, plus a widespread social media campaign to eat as much beef as possible on March 20.
Polis responded to the MeatOut dustup by saying he was “thrilled” that his proclamation “helped start a grassroots movement of support for cattlemen and the beef industry.” He also proclaimed Monday as Colorado Livestock Proud Day.
Kenny Rogers, a rancher in Yuma who is incoming president of the Colorado Livestock Association, said he hoped the governor and Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg “would be getting out in front of this.” Greenberg’s office said the Department of Agriculture, as a state agency, is prohibited from taking a position on ballot initiatives but that the office was talking to stakeholders about the potential impact on ranchers if it were to pass.
If the animal cruelty measure passes, it would wreck an entire sector of Colorado’s economy and beyond, Rogers said. The ripple effects would extend first to corn farming, to grain producers, and then to the trucking industry, he said.
Besides, he added, livestock producers are trained to handle and help their animals and aim to keep them healthy, not abused. “You cannot do things to animals that they don’t allow you to or that they are not comfortable with,” he said, “because they will hurt you next time around”.
A fiscal analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Council staff said the measure would cost Colorado an estimated $200,000 annually to hire employees to investigate animal cruelty allegations. The office also noted additional costs to county and local law enforcement.
As for the section of the proposal requiring that animals get to live 25% of their natural lifespans, analysts said this could lead to higher production costs and higher prices for meat products.
Backers of the ballot initiative could start collecting signatures as soon as Thursday, unless opposition is filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. If a motion for rehearing is filed, the title board would have to reconsider last week’s decision approving the signature-gathering phase. The group has six months to gather the required signatures.
Sage, with PAUSE, said he was expecting a challenge and a rehearing.
Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, called the initiative “one of the most radical and reactionary propositions this state has ever seen.”
“Should it pass, Colorado would no longer be the ‘Silicon Valley of Agriculture,’” he said. “A more apt title might be the ‘Stone Age of Agriculture.’”