“We believe beef quality assurance starts at the ranch,” Dr. Mike and Anne Wirtz say. “The cattle go through the feeding period at the feedlots under the same guidelines and on to the packers so consumers can be confident that their beef is safe, healthy and wholesome.”
The Wirtz family, whose cow cow-calf operation, TZ Cattle Company in Brenham, Texas, focuses on crossbreeding Santa Gertrudis genetics with Angus and Hereford, and has been strong advocates of Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) since its early development. The Wirtzes were recently named the 2014 Beef Quality Assurance Award winners.
According to Kansas State University director of the Beef Cattle Institute Daniel Thomson, the BQA program began to develop in the early 1980s through the Texas Cattle Feeders Association’s efforts to prevent cattle from being shipped to slaughter before their vaccination and medication withdrawal periods were completed. The movement was also implemented to prevent bruising and blemishing from vaccination practices.
“It started out as a quality-assurance program to make sure we didn’t have residues from antibiotics and other drugs in beef,” Thomson says. “That includes things such as the route of administration of the product — having a check system to make sure we had everything taken care of properly to avoid drug residues in beef as well as physical defects such as injection blemishes.”
Preventing these issues is what compelled the Wirtzes to get involved in the ‘80s. Mike is a practicing and consulting veterinarian and he felt an obligation to help his clients and his profession.
“We decided to get in the forefront since we did a lot of herd work for the clients and needed to do it right,” Mike says. “First we trained our associate veterinarians and our staff, and then our clients as we went out, by explaining to them why and what we were doing to create a good product for consumers.”
The BQA program, which was formally established in 1987 after being funded by the Beef Checkoff, has grown immensely over the years to cover a vast amount of topics related to raising cattle from birth to packing plant and everything in between. In order to keep the program progressing and focused on key elements, a BQA advisory board was created.
The key elements are based on the Producer Code for Cattle Care, which the Cattle Industry’s Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle outlines as:
- Provide necessary food, water and care to protect the health and well-being of animals.
- Provide disease-prevention practices to protect herd health, including access to veterinary care.
- Provide facilities that allow safe, humane and efficient movement and/or restraint of cattle.
- Use appropriate methods to humanely euthanize terminally sick or injured livestock and dispose of them properly.
- Provide personnel with training/experience to properly handle and care for cattle.
- Make timely observations of cattle to ensure basic needs are being met.
- Minimize stress when transporting cattle.
- Keep updated on advancements and changes in the industry to make decisions based upon sound production practices and consideration for animal well-being.
- Persons who willfully mistreat animals will not be tolerated.
Thomson, a current member of the BQA advisory board, says it is made up of producers and veterinarians throughout the United States who meet twice a year to discuss issues coming from producer, consumer and foodservice groups.
“We’re hearing issues from both sides,” he says. “Once we discuss these issues and decide it’s something we want to move forward with, the proposals are drafted for the Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.”
The advisory board also takes into consideration research found through the National Beef Quality Audit. In 1991, the first audit was conducted in efforts to “establish a new benchmark for shortfalls in beef cattle quality and identify new targets for desired quality levels.” Since then, audits have been conducted in 1995, 2000 and 2005 and led to the development of the Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit — Beef Edition and Dairy Edition, which have been conducted in 1994, 1999 and 2007.
According to Thomson, while BQA will continue to progress and adapt, its main core will always be on food safety, animal welfare and sustainability.
The latest Beef Industry Scan, which collects research for marketing and consumer trends, highlighted food safety and product quality as key features. The Wirtzes and Thomson agree that taking the step to become BQA certified demonstrates a producer’s commitment to following best practices with his animals and will help in consumer confidence.
“A lot of food-safety, animal-welfare and sustainability practices are common sense to producers and what they do on a day-to-day basis,” Thomson says. “We just haven’t documented them to show the consumer that we do that.”
Today, BQA covers topics like parasite control, cattle handling, weaning, preconditioning, vaccine usage, humane euthanasia and transportation. Thomson stresses that practicing BQA is essential for every segment of the cattle industry chain.
“We have a segmented industry and some people tend to think of the segment stopping when it leaves the gate of their facilities,” Thomson says. “But life doesn’t start when it enters the next segment; really this is a lifecycle, continuous-care program.”
Through being BQA certified, the Wirtzes have been able to market their cattle to buyers looking for age-, source- and process-verified beef that has been though documented health programs — and they were able to earn a premium for their investment in quality.
This is something Thomson feels will be a game changer in the cattle industry.
“Down the road I see BQA-certified feedyards only purchasing cattle from BQA-certified cow-calf operations,” Thomson says. “There will be a market value generated to making sure the animal was cared for by people certified by BQA and on premises that went through BQA assessments for the BQA practices at all levels of that animal’s life.”
How to get BQA certified
“There is no reason not to get certified,” say the Wirtzes. “It’s simply the right thing to do.”
There are two ways for producers to get certified. They can either have a face-to-face meeting with a BQA trainer or complete online training. Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc. has partnered with the BQA program to provide free online training through the months of September and October at BIVI-BQA.com. Customized modules for cow-calf, stocker, feedlot and dairy operations are available for anyone seeking certification or recertification. Once through training, BQA certification is good for three years.
If producers are trained at a meeting, they usually go through a more generalized training session. At some events, a veterinarian is on hand to show attendees firsthand the impacts their decisions and practices have on animals.
“It doesn’t matter how long or how many times you’ve been through the program,” Mike says, “there is always something new; you will learn much more with each training.”
Thomson recommends producers look at it as an investment in the future of their operations.
“It’s such a huge investment for producers to take an afternoon at a meeting, or an evening online to get certified,” Thomson says. “Do it for the cattle, the people who have chosen to spend their life raising cattle and the people who consume beef products — that’s the reason why we do BQA.”