Dee Likes, CEO and executive vice president of the Kansas Livestock Association for three decades, has announced that he will step down at the end of the year.
The KLA is the state’s main organization for cattle and other livestock and lobbies on legislative, regulatory and industry issues.
Likes will take the title of chief executive emeritus and will remain with the KLA in an advisory role.
“I had somebody ask me, what does emeritus mean exactly?” Likes said Tuesday. “It’s Latin for stay out of the way and only speak when spoken to.”
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Likes, who was born in Emporia and grew up around Burlington, joined the KLA staff in 1976 after working as an analyst for CattleFax. He became CEO in January 1984.
Likes is extraordinarily well respected in Kansas and nationwide, said Tracy Brunner, a rancher near Ramona and former KLA president.
“It’s hard to think about KLA without thinking about Dee Likes,” Brunner said.
KLA president Jeff Sternberger said a search is underway to find a replacement.
Likes said that now is an interesting and unusual time in the beef industry – every segment of the industry is profitable.
The biggest challenge these days is how the industry recovers from the shrinkage in the cattle herd that was caused by the drought, he said. The U.S. cattle herd is the smallest it’s been in decades. That has pushed up prices, driving profitability in some sectors and threatening to cut into long-term consumer demand for beef.
And while every segment of the beef industry is profitable at the moment, particularly for ranchers raising calves, the costs and other risk factors seem to be growing.
The other huge challenge is the regulatory environment, he said.
“Even though the current administration is set to leave office, and they have been the most punitive regulatory administration that we have had, it won’t be easy to turn back the clock,” he said. “And that is the calculus cattlemen make when trying to figure out whether to reinvest in their herd. There will be those who choose to retire debt and sell land instead.”
“It’s almost like we’ve never had it so good,” he said, “but the risks seem bigger than ever.”
A big positive, he said, is that the industry has more or less agreed within itself to move to a more coordinated, cohesive supply chain in which sales are set more by private agreements than by open markets. That allows buyers and sellers to focus more on quality and consistency, in addition to price. That’s crucial for the industry to move beef beyond being a commodity.
He said that while rains have come back to Kansas, there are still wide swaths of drought from Texas to California.
“As it starts to rain, the real question is how modest will it be,” he said of steps to rebuild the nation’s cattle herd. “It would probably be pretty bullish to think that it will go right back to where it was.”