In our rapidly changing world, we tend to take a lot of things for granted. We have technology to thank for that. Cell phones, e-mail, improved health care and even convenience foods help make our lives easier and better. Advances in technology also have dramatically improved beef production and helped generate profits for your operation, though until now, the value of that technology has been hard to measure.

Over the past 50 years, research, technology development and innovation have increased beef production per head by over 80 percent. And the total production of beef has doubled, from 13.2 to about 27 billion pounds, in the same period of time. Those startling facts are the result of a review of technical literature by Tom Elam, president of Strategic Directions of Carmel, Ind., and Rod Preston of Pagosa Springs, Colo., professor emeritus at Texas Tech University  —   two well-respected industry scientists who co-authored “Fifty years of pharmaceutical technology and its impact on the beef we provide consumers.” They take an in-depth look at the economic, environmental and beef-quality implications of pharmaceutical technology, as well as other technologies that have been adopted by the beef industry in the past 50 years.

By revealing the improvements in beef production, the research by Dr. Elam and Dr. Preston also uncovered facts that help measure how improved technology helps our environment and helps hold down costs for consumers. The researchers list pharmaceutical technology, genetics, nutrition, pasture management, stocker management and feedlot production as all playing important roles in the dramatic improvements over the last half-century.

Grain-fed beef
“The most significant impact of technology on U.S. beef production has been to increase grain-fed beef production and decrease the proportion of non-fed beef production,” Dr. Elam and Dr. Preston wrote. “A synergistic combination of a number of technologies has increased our ability to feed cattle high-grain diets, the most significant contributor to increased beef industry productivity, efficiency and product quality over the past 50 years. Our feedlot technology is what differentiates U.S. beef production from that of the rest of the world. Based on beef production per head of cattle, the U.S. today is the most efficient beef producer in the world.”

The development of America’s cattle-feeding industry over the past 50 years dramatically improved the tenderness, taste and consistency of the products offered to consumers. “The increased supply of feedlot beef has revolutionized the consumer beef-eating experience, both in terms of quality and consistency, while at the same time we have also significantly improved overall production efficiency,” they said.

No single technology can account for the improvements in beef’s production system. In fact, it has improved due to advances in a number of technologies. For instance, the authors say, if growth-promoting implants were eliminated from the current technologies, the effects would extend far beyond those of the grain and feed-efficiency effects they have in feedlots.

“It has been estimated that without implants, retail sales of beef would decrease about $1.4 billion, resulting in a reduction of 1.2 million beef cows,” they said. “Genetics, feeding programs, stocker programs and feedlot management would all have to be extensively modified. It would be very likely that the amount of beef produced in feedlots would fall, negatively affecting quality. Lower beef quality could lead to a drop in beef demand and financial losses for producers. Similarly, other pharmaceutical technologies, such as ionophores, antibiotics, repartitioning agents, parasiticides, vaccines and estrus regulators have contributed to improved growth and efficiency, enhanced animal health and well-being, and improved reproductive performance of the nation’s cattle herd.”

Dr. Elam says that with 1955 technology and costs, the total cattle inventory would need to be 180 million head rather than the current 95 million to produce this year’s estimated 24 billion pounds.

Environmental impact
Cattle are the largest users of land in the U.S. food-production system. Today’s herd utilizes about 500 million acres, which is about 53 percent of the 938 million acres used by agriculture. But increases in productivity due to technology have reduced the amount of land needed by the beef industry.

Dr. Elam says that to produce 24 billion pounds of beef using 1955 technology, assuming current stocking rates, the industry would need an additional 442 million acres of land for pasture and feed-grain production. That’s a land area equal to the combined acreage of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Kansas.

“That would place an incredible strain on our land inventory and the environment,” Dr. Preston says. “Total animal waste production would be almost 30 percent higher than is currently produced.”

While technology has improved beef production, it has also boosted grain and crop production. Those technological benefits have allowed the cattle-feeding industry to pros-per while minimizing the environmental impact.

“The overall impact of technology changes for crops and cattle has been to significantly reduce the land used to meet the feed requirements for feedlot beef production,” Dr. Preston says. “The bottom line is that, despite an almost 200 percent increase in fed beef production since 1955, the real cost of feedstuffs used decreased about 28 percent.”

Benefits to consumers
Dr. Preston and Dr. Elam say the primary benefits of increased productivity have accrued to the cattle industry and to U.S. beef consumers. “In 2004, we have a more plentiful, less expensive and higher-quality beef supply than we did in 1955. That we have managed to simultaneously increase efficiency, quality and production, while reducing the real price of beef, is a testament to the remarkable work of thousands of men and women involved in this industry over the last 50 years. As a result of their efforts, the industry produces more, and higher-quality beef than it would have had these productivity increases not occurred.”

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