For decades the beef industry has slowly shifted westward. The feeding industry moved to the irrigation and milder weather of the southern Plains, and the packing industry soon followed. Eastern river markets closed, while feeder cattle prices became dictated by shipping and transportation costs to the Plains.

However, the first signs that a shift eastward is underway can be found near some of the nation's large hog operations in North Carolina. The large integrated pork producers in North Carolina and other areas of the southeast are becoming cowmen, not because of a romance with the American West or the desire to wear boots and a cowboy hat, but because cattle are an asset to their businesses.

Disposal of manure and effluent from large concentrated hog operations is a major task, and one that has been under the microscope of government and consumer scrutiny. Spreading those nutrients on grazing land and allowing cattle to harvest the forages has proven to be the most efficient method of nutrient recycling. But more important, the pork businessmen want their cows to be profit centers rather than just recycling machines.

Frank Seymour, resource manager for Goldsboro Hog Farms in Goldsboro, N.C., says it best. "It doesn't cost more to run a good cow than it does to run a bad cow. So we want to produce a quality product, not just something to eat the grass."

That's the attitude of your future competitor. The large pork integrators will utilize all available technology and business skills to make their cowherds as efficient and profitable as possible. They're evaluating genetics to determine the most productive in their environment and the most marketable. And they're looking for partners from other segments in the marketing chain. Some of the larger feedyards are already lining up to make their services available to the pork integrators who have become cowmen.

These events may be undesireable, even distasteful, to many ranchers. But regardless of your emotions on the issue, you must recognize your competition and their strengths if you are to compete effectively. First, the pork integrators are businessmen who count every penny. Second, they'll seek and use every possible tool to improve quality, production or efficiency. Finally, after they've proven they have a superior product, they'll demand more than average prices for their production.

Traditional cow-calf operations in the east and ranchers in the west may have some advantages of their own to give the beef industry of the future. And certainly pork integrators aren't the only ones with the business savvy to run a profitable cow herd. But it's clear that beef production as a business will become extremely competitive in the near future, placing even more pressure on traditional cattle operations to produce efficiently and improve quality.