Monthly Archives: September 2012

Challenges the Beef Industry is Facing and Strategies to Overcome Them

In recent months, there have been many challenges facing the beef industry over lean finely textured beef (LFTB or “pink slime”), transgluterase, EPA fly-overs, antibiotic use, and animal rights activists’ attacks both in the legislature and on the farm (Harris Ranch). This is a function of the today’s media and social networks, and has led to the American consumer becoming more concerned about how their food is raised than ever before. These concerns do not fall on deaf ears as technology use and animal welfare have been at the heart of industry efforts for decades. The question becomes not only what technologies and techniques to use, but also how best to showcase to consumers that the best management practices are being used.

Survey information compiled by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), shows that concerns over production practices are especially prevalent in the Millennial generation (ages 18-32). This is an age group that is important for the beef industry to capture to ensure future domestic markets, though current market conditions make it difficult as beef prices rise. The Millennial generation is starting to graduate from college, begin their professional careers and start families. This is a generation that is highly affected by price but is also more likely to be influenced by production practices. They are a generation that has grown up on the internet and in social media and are highly influenced by sensational headlines regarding LFTB, mad cow disease, antibiotics, or Clenbuterol. Millennials are also a main target for animal rights organizations, such as Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who are focusing on this generation when promoting their vegan agenda.

In order to win the battle for consumers and secure beef’s future on the center of America’s plate, our industry needs to focus on using management practices that are not only science based, but also accepted by the consumer. This might seem to be a daunting task, but it really isn’t as difficult as the face value. Global Animal Partnership (GAP) is one of largest humane handling programs and audits in the United States, with products going to retailers such as Whole Foods and restaurants like Chipotle. GAP has representatives from both HSUS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who serve on their standards board. Step 1 of the GAP program is predominately composed of practices that a majority of producers are using along with almost all natural beef producers. As an industry, we are using practices that even our greatest enemies can approve of, but unfortunately folks don’t believe it without the third-party audit.

The management practices consumers are most interested in (aside from their ideas of enough food, water and sunshine) is the use of antibiotics, growth promotants and animal handling. Issues such as LFTB and transgluterase are of interest to them, but those are more processor and retailer related matters, which by all means cow/calf producers should be educated enough to speak about, but they have little control over the processes. These practices are more related to the rancher or feedlot operator.

The use of antibiotics on farms is a hot button issue with the American public due to the perception that it is overused and causes antibiotic resistant bacteria that will affect human medicine, and this in turn is coupled with worries about residues in the meat supply. As producers, we are responsible for ensuring safety and minimizing residues by adhering to withdrawal periods and label instructions. This involves following Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) protocols for drug administration. It remains important to always give injections in the neck, at prescribed levels and subcutaneously if possible. Anti-microbials, such as ionophores, are also thrown into this category for their sub-therapeutic use. Part of the solution to this issue is education from the grassroots level in how these drugs are used and the safety behind the research and the responsible use by ranchers.

Growth promotants are typically lumped in with antibiotics in the belief that we “pump our cattle full of hormones and have to give them antibiotics to keep them healthy.” While this idea might seem silly and unfounded to a producer, according to NCBA research over 18 percent of Millennials believe just that. Growth promotants mainly refer to implants and beta-agonists, which are most commonly used in a feedlot setting but have some use by ranchers. Critics fear residues, especially with hormone implants. In the case of attacks on technology, knowledge is power. At a recent NCBA meeting, Dr. Jude Capper stated that the extra beef from implants and beta-agonists on a single carcass supply seven children with school lunches for the year. Research has also shown that the difference in estrogen levels in an implanted steer versus a non-implanted steer equate to 0.4 nanograms per four ounce serving (1.6 nanograms for implanted steer), whereas three ounces of soy oil, a typical vegetarian protein supplement, contains 168,000 nanograms of estrogen.

The issues regarding animal handling revolve around the same issue of animal welfare. It is disheartening how quick the public is to believe a video put together by an animal rights group of poor handling and production practices and to extrapolate that it is representative of the entire industry. It is amazing to see how people pay attention to an issue like the E6 Ranch incident and lose sight of the millions of dollars producers have put into animal behavior research, facilities and training. The thousands of producers who attend seminars annually conducted by industry leaders Curt Pate and Dr. Ron Gill on animal handling know what good husbandry is and put it to use in their own operations. Feedlots and ranches across the country continue to upgrade their facilities in the vein of Temple Grandin’s research and protocols to better handling practices. This is an issue that must be attacked from a grassroots level in order to prevent consumer dissatisfaction and government overreach.

All of these technologies and practices are topics we need to be prepared to defend in the near future and it will take an effort from the entire industry to do it. As an industry, we have relied on the science behind what we do to defend our practices for a long time. In today’s media environment where a “mommy blogger” can shut down production of a safe USDA approved product like LFTB with no history of bacterial contamination, science isn’t enough.

As ranchers, we must address the public that is generations removed from the farm and open the barn door. Whether it is hosting a farm or feedlot tour, talking to your congressmen or just the organic Whole Foods shopper down the street, we must act. We stand today on the top of a slippery slope that could lead us toward government regulation of the European vein, where supply is stifled and good producers are forced out of business. It will take producers, backgrounders, livestock market operators, feedlots and packers uniting together to use technology safely and effectively, use animal husbandry wisely and to spread the word publicly to enhance this industry’s image and preserve our way of life.

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Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Uncategorized


Don’t Oversimplify the Value of Crossbreeding

Crossbreeding has been shown by numerous research studies to enhance advantages in growth, longevity and maternal efficiency over straightbred cattle due to the effect of heterosis and has been popular among commercial cattlemen since the 1960s. With the growth of the Angus breed and the success of their marketing program, the term “Angus” has taken on a meaning synonymous with quality with consumers. This fact has changed the commercial landscape with a majority of the American cowherd being Angus-influenced and has led some to theorize that crossbreeding is no longer needed and market demands can be met with just one breed.

At the 2011 North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE), a white paper entitled, “Crossbreeding: A free lunch but at what cost,” published by Dr. Nevil Speer of Western Kentucky University was presented as part of the American Angus Association’s events. Certified Angus Beef and the American Angus Association have since published articles in industry publications throughout the national pertaining to the paper and have even made an illustrated breakdown of the paper for distribution.

 The paper takes issue with the simplistic perspective that extra pounds through heterosis automatically equals a more profitable bottom line. It does this by comparing straight breeding Angus genetics to a “haphazard implementation of crossbreeding.” In this general comparison selecting for Angus bulls that are uniform and excel in traits that the industry desires is more profitable than selecting for a crossbreeding system whose only focus is increased weaning weight. 

I grew up in the Angus breed and still own Angus cattle but to draw a conclusion that crossbreeding is not a viable and profitable breeding plan based on this general comparison is simply not accurate. The beef industry is far too complex and diversified in environment, production and marketing systems to find that one breed or breeding plan is the only profitable solution. I believe that Dr. Speer understands this since his statement was aiming to “serve as a meaningful foundation for a deeper, more comprehensive discussion about crossbreeding within the beef industry.” But I also see far too many people are skipping that discussion and move to the simplistic conclusion that crossbreeding holds no value.

The key to the entire system is that breeding must be achieved in a programmed manner using seedstock that are appropriate for the situation. Profit minded cattlemen are aware of the advantages of using outcross genetics and breeds to advance their programs. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have seen the increase in value for bulls in major Continental breeds in the past year. Growth in natural and NHTC programs are also a driver of a return to crossbreeding since performance, efficiency and yield provided by crossbreeding are needed to maintain profitability when implants, beta agonists and ionophores are removed.

 Currently a majority of the US cow herd is Angus based or at least British influenced. Since the early 1990s, Hereford and Angus have made strides in the area of performance, achieving weaning and yearling weights equal to the Continental breeds, and maintained their advantage in marbling characteristics (USMARC GPE Cycle VII). However, these breeds still face problems in the commercial sector. British breeds tend to be early maturing with excess subcutaneous fat, high feed conversion rates and low dressing percentages. This is one of the major drivers for the extensive use of implants and beta agonists in commercial feedyards. This is also why we are seeing a demand from the feeding and processing sectors for designed hybrid feeder cattle to overcome these challenges. For example this summer, Lim-FlexÒ feeder cattle from Sierra Valley Ranch in California and Big Meadows Ranch in Colorado sold at the top of their weight classes at the Superior Livestock Auctions in Winnemucca, NV and Steamboat Springs, CO, respectively.

Tom Brink of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding gave a presentation to the recent Emerging Leaders Academy entitled “What feedyards are looking for in the feeder cattle they buy.” He presented that the industry currently needs steers that will a produce a Choice quality grade carcass that has a Yield Grade less than 3, and to be the most profitable the hot carcass weight needs to be over 850 pounds.  Brink then laid out his breed composition pyramid for the ideal feeder steer which includes a 25 to 50 percent Continental influence to meet these demands.  A majority of these cattle work in premium programs with an Angus label since a bulk of the Limousin, Simmental, and Gelbvieh breeds are black.

Targeted crossbreeding might be the most useful tool that the beef industry has in the future. We are looking at a growing world population that will require 100 percent more food by the year 2050, of which around 70 percent will have to come through efficiency improving technology. A natural phenomenon that yields the improved fertility, performance, carcass value and longevity of heterosis is not something to be tossed away on a whim.

This is the opportunity for seedstock breeders to educate their commercial customers. It is not crossbreeding that is a problem, but rather the fact that a large number of producers have no breeding plan at all and mate cows without a goal or program. Quality pounds on the plate of the consumer are the key and the breed composition to achieve that is based upon the program’s resources as the determining factor. In order for the beef industry to meet the needs of the world’s dinner tables, producers need to look for the best breeding plan to fit various market needs for high quality, efficiently produced pounds and use heterosis to help push the bar forward.

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Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


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