At the Ft. Worth Stock Show this past weekend, Andy Peterson of Limousin Live brought to my attention the issue of uniformity in the beef industry that came to him as he read an earlier post on the National Western. His comment is below.
Food for your (and mine) rumination: why is there the desire to create the same product in the beef industry? Wine isn’t very homogeneous yet is quite profitable. Does uniformity of a product automatically equate to profit?
His point is well taken and I can agree to a point. The industry is far too complex for one particular animal to be the ideal in all environments. The differences in environment account for a large part of variation. Places like South Dakota and Iowa can sustain larger framed cattle because of the availability of high quality feedstuffs. Cattle have to be good grass converters and be extremely sound to live in the high deserts of Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, where they stock a cow to about 50 acres. Growing up in the fescue country of Central Virginia, we always realized that we could send cattle to about anywhere because they could convert low quality forage. And some cattle couldn’t handle that forage environment.
Chicken and pork have uniformity of product because they are raised in a controlled environment and biologically don’t have much variation in taste due to intramuscular fat deposits. Cattle have to live a majority of their lives on forage and are typically finished in feed yards in order to have add uniformity to the beef product and reduce overhead costs.
Uniformity does pay on an individual basis if all your calves fit a particular mold so that they can be marketed in larger groups, fed the same, and have the same end point. But where I really disagree is in the meat case.
Since beef is the highest priced protein on the block (the wine to chicken and pork’s Pabst Blue Ribbon), when Susie Q Homemaker buys steaks at the supermarket she wants to know that they will eat well. Nothing is worse than paying $20 for a restaurant steak and having to chew it like it is boot leather. Wal-Mart recently changed their entire meat case over to Choice quality grade product for this reason. It had a very dramatic effect on the Choice-Select spread, though that is a thought for another day.
There are a large number of different beef products for consumers. Some value lean beef over Choice or Prime. Some prefer all-natural. Others like to know how it is raised, grass-fed, meadow-raised, hormone-free, ethically handled. So there is some flexibility in the products that the industry can sell into niches.
But most consumers just want a healthy safe affordable product. So as a whole and especially at export markets, quality is still king. A packing executive shared with NALF recently that in his own opinion, he would like to see the US slaughter be 25% Prime, because he could sell it. That might not be feasible from a production stand point but it is what his consumer wants.
Please don’t misunderstand. The US cowherd is diverse and the product that the commercial industry wants from the seedstock sector is too. There are still a large number of small framed lighter muscled British based herds out there that could use a shot of hybrid vigor from the Continental breeds. And a large number of Brahman influenced herds that could use some British influence.
There is no one breed or one cross that is not the perfect recipe for the industry. But I think that there is a kind of cattle in all breeds that we can all agree will work and make the beef required by consumers. Sound, functional cattle with quality muscling and fleshing ability never go out of style. That kind of cattle coupled with the right set of genetic evaluation numbers (EPDs, genetic markers, etc.) will be the kind to take us into the next century and will make sure my children have a chance to raise cattle.