Concentration of America's steer and heifer slaughter and packing industry into a few hands could be a problem in the future, members of the Utah Cattlemen's Association were told Friday.

B.H. Jones, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Packers and Stockyards Administration in Washington, D.C., said the four biggest packing conglomerates in the United States killed an estimated 66 percent of the nation's steers and heifers last year.Speaking at the last day of the association's three-day annual convention at the Marriott Hotel, Jones said the nation's largest meat packers are beginning to contract ahead of time for beef and feed some of their own cattle for slaughter.

"This trend of concentrating the industry in a few companies could present some problems for cattlemen, but the nation's cattlemen seem divided so far on whether the trend is good or bad," Jones said.

There were more mergers of meat packers in 1987 than at any time in the history of the American cattle industry, he said. "The three top companies are now Con Agra, Omaha; Cargill, which controls the packing company Excel, in Kansas; and IBP, in Nebraska.

"A fourth company, National, in Liberty, Kan., is gaining strength and Beef America, in Nebraska and Iowa, is growing larger quickly," he said.

"Cattlemen haven't decided whether they want the government to step in and control the slaughter industry or control the size of the conglomerates that are taking over a larger and larger share of the slaughter process."

Jones said another potential problem is foreign intrusion into the American beef industry. He said a huge Australian and New Zealand firm has purchased an Iowa beef company and also has large grain production interests in America.

"The Japanese are coming into the West Coast - California and the state of Washington - in a big way, producing beef here for sale in Japan. And the Canadians are coming into California and even the French are coming to the United States and getting into the hog industry.

"There are plenty of things for American cattle producers to worry about in the future," he told the Utah cattlemen.