When consumers have doubts about beef or beef production, we typically point to a lack of exposure and understanding, or even worse, a sense that beef producers have something to hide. Increasingly, stakeholders are realizing a growing need to improve consumer trust though greater transparency and a dialog with consumers and influencers. With that in mind, The Colorado Beef Council and Colorado State University this week hosted a conference titled “Beef + Transparency = Trust” in Denver.
The one-day conference targeted influencers such as consumer media, food writers, nutritionists and food-business executives, with some journalists representing trade media such as Drovers/CattleNetwork also in attendance. A notable lineup of speakers including ranchers, cattle feeders and scientists provided objective, honest and factual information about modern beef-production practices and the reasons behind them. Over the next few days, we’ll summarize some of the meeting’s highlights, providing readers with background they can use in discussions with curious consumers.
Chandler Keys helped set the stage with an opening presentation outlining the makeup of the diverse U.S. beef industry. Keys spent years as NCBA’s representative on Capitol Hill, then performed similar duties for JBS SA and now runs his own consulting company, the Keys Group.
Keys told attendees the U.S. beef herd currently numbers about 29 million cows, which is the smallest inventory since the 1950s, yet produces about the same volume of beef. He also described how the U.S. dairy industry, with about 9 million cows, contributes cull cows and steer calves to the total U.S. beef supply.
He explained the role of the roughly 750,000 cow-calf producers in the United States, whose average herd size is about 40 cows. About 20,000 of those have 200 cows or more, and it takes a cow herd numbering 450 to 500 cows to earn a rancher a full-time middle-class income.
Calves graze on pastures at least until weaning, and after weaning typically sell at local auctions and move to stocker operations where they remain on forage until they are a year old or older. Next, they move to feedyards where they shift to a more grain-based diet for 150 to 200 days. Feedyards typically use implants and beta agonists to improve growth and efficiency.
Keys stressed that most beef cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture or range, and that large-scale consolidation in the cow-calf and stocker sectors is unlikely because of the large land and capital requirements.