I often think back to my writings in years gone by and to some of the descriptions I used to give life to views or circumstances. I once reminded readers that change could be as imperceptible as a fence losing its tautness or a creek growing in width. On another occasion, I likened the cattle industry to a hand on which the thumb and fingers were controlled by five different minds.

In addition to editorial writing in those days, I gave some speeches to producer groups. These were speeches about change-about changes in the market for beef and the response that was needed from producers of cattle. Not many people in my audiences seemed to accept these words at that time. The eyes of many glazed over after a few minutes and some actually nodded off.

In effect, like many other speakers and journalists in those days, I was sounding an alarm. Like a clanging alarm clock, I tried to awaken people to the challenges of a new day-a new time. But the response of many was to just hit the snooze button and dream on. Little was it realized that the flow of change could not be stemmed, and that the pace of change would increase.

But, you could say, if so much has changed since then why do so many things still look the same today? Why do I still see the same cattle when I drive down the road? Why do I still see mongrel cattle when I go to the sale barn? Why do my calves still sell by the pound? What's wrong with just hitting the snooze button and dreaming my old dreams?

The reality is you do not operate in the same context now as you did 15 or more years ago. The force of the consumer's voice and the cattle industry's response to it is entirely different. It took a visionary to make changes in 1985, for example. For one reason, a commodity mentality dominated the packing industry and most producers were not being rewarded for quality cattle. It was easy for producers to say I'll make changes when I get paid for changes.
The context of today's market is much, much different. This is not a context that can be measured by looking at cattle from the highway. The view has to be much more cerebral. It is at last possible to get rewarded for quality. At long last the day has arrived as predicted back in the 1980s by my friend Del Allen of the Excel Corporation that trash prices would be paid for trash cattle.

As breeders of commercial cattle, you don't have the luxury of hitting the snooze button today and waking up to business as usual. You don't have another 15 years to get in step with the market. Sheer live weight has waned greatly as a force in cattle valuing, the importance carcass merit has correspondingly increased, breed choices are more important than ever, records have become more important than eyes in cattle selection, business style has become more important than life style in cattle production.

If you haven't already done so, it is essential that you take steps now to figure out how you want your cattle to fit into the requirements of the changing market. Examine the pricing grids being offered by most processors. Even though you may not feed any cattle, these grids are sending strong price signals to the calf and feeder cattle sectors about the kind of cattle the market requires. You may want your cattle to fit one of the various niche markets. This is OK. But each objective will have an impact on the cows in your herd and the kind of bulls that you use.

This is no time to hit the snooze button again. The fence is now slack and the hand that produces the cattle is guided by only one mind.

To contact Fred Knop, write Drovers or send e-mail to: fredlyn@aol.com