U.S. farm state senators in a beef over livestock bill

CHICAGO, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Two senior Republican U.S. senators from top farm states have locked horns over legislation intended to make cattle markets more transparent, after the COVID-19 pandemic tanked livestock prices.

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa and a bipartisan group of colleagues introduced a bill in May that would force meatpackers like JBS USA , Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc to buy at least half the beef cattle they slaughter directly from producers on the open market and then kill those animals within two weeks.

Grassley said the bill would make it easier for farmers to track market prices and increase competition among meatpackers that often lock in prices with producers under longer-term contracts.

Cattle prices fell in March and April as slaughterhouses shut due to COVID-19 even as beef prices soared to their biggest premium over cattle since records began in 2001. The bill is meant to prevent such distortions that squeeze ranchers.

U.S. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is a surprising opponent. Grassley, in a call with reporters this week, accused Roberts of delaying the bill and said Roberts’ staff is “geared up” to fight it.

“I’m working to understand the diverse perspectives within the industry regarding market volatility and transparency,” Roberts told Reuters in a statement.

Roberts said some cattle producers do not see how Grassley’s bill will help. Meat packers are against it, an industry lobbyist said, as are some producer groups that oppose the federal government dictating free market practices.

Adam Jones, owner of Crooked Creek Angus in St. Francis, Kansas, said a lack of price discovery currently means ranchers who sign contracts with packers might not know if they are getting a good market price.

“The whole system works for the packers, but not for producers,” said Jones, 38. “For Roberts to not give cattle producers the chance to be heard is completely tone deaf.” (Reporting by Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Dan Grebler)