Beef industry resolutions for the New Year

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As we enter the year 2014, I am sure many of you have established personal or business-related goals for the coming year. I know the whole New Year's Resolutions issue can be very exciting to some as we set such lofty goals as weight loss, regular church attendance, increasing charitable donations, and generally being a better person. When we reach the end of a given year, our frustration level grows significantly as we realize that we didn't reach those optimistic targets. Do you remember the goals that you set 12 months ago?

Every business needs to set aggressive goals for improvement to remain competitive and profitable in today's challenging economy. This is especially true for the beef industry in the United States. While price prospects for most segments of the beef cattle industry look promising for 2014, we can't afford to become complacent and be satisfied with the "status quo." The following are my New Year's Resolutions for the Beef Industry in 2014.

1. Increasing the supply of beef cattle in the United States.

According to Cattle-Fax, the nation's beef cowherd will be at 29 million head on January 1, 2014 which reflects an over 6 million cow decline since 1995. Market prices have encouraged producers to consider expansion and drought relief in larger geographical areas across the country is allowing some increase in numbers to actually become a reality. However, this large decline in numbers has occurred over many years and the rebuilding process will take time.

The industry has made efforts to keep the levels of beef production up to keep up with demand. Harvest weights have increased steadily over the past several years but there are practical limits as to how far they can continue to rise. The use of beta-agonists will increase muscle tissue and reduce the fat percentage on carcasses but there are questions about domestic and foreign consumer acceptance of the product. The continued use of currently available antibiotics to enhance performance is a hotly debated component of the entire antibiotic resistance issue.

Now more than ever, producers must optimize reproduction rates to help increase the size of our calf crop. This can be accomplished through better adoption of proven, effective management practices. Unfortunately, time-tested technologies such as palpation, breeding soundness exams of herd sires, and body condition scoring are woefully underutilized. According to the 2007-08 National Animal Health Monitoring System's Beef Study, less than 20% of all beef operations use any one of these practices.

The job of increasing beef cattle numbers in the U.S. will be a daunting task. Producers will continue to struggle with the decision between selling high-priced heifer calves as feeders versus retaining heifers to build herd numbers. Improving conception rates and percent calf crop weaned can also help increase numbers to help increase supplies.

2. Improve the quality of our product in the eyes of the consumer.

Retail beef prices once again reached record-high levels once again in 2013. Tight cattle supplies will keep prices high again in 2014. Consumer demand for beef has been strong through these times of higher prices. However, the sluggish U.S. economy will limit the consumers' spending budgets and may force them to consider cheaper protein sources. If we expect consumers to spend their hard-earned dollars on beef, the entire industry must insure that our beef product is of the highest quality.

National Beef Quality Audits have shown that the beef industry has made has made significant progress towards addressing product shortcomings. These audits began in 1991 and have been conducted every five years since then. The early audits focused primarily on the physical properties of beef including factors such as marbling, external fat and carcass blemishes. The most recent audit shows the beef industry must be more concerned about such "big picture" issues such as food safety, sustainability, animal well-being, and the growing disconnect between livestock producers and consumers.

The beef industry is no longer able to expect that the consumer will be satisfied with knowledge that we are efficient producers that uses the best science available to produce a high quality product. Today's consumer wants to know more about how there beef is produced, how it was raised and where it comes from. Societal pressures require that our animals are treated humanely. We are making improvements in these areas but the industry must do a better job of telling our story.

3. More efficient use of forages.

Examine any beef cow budgets available from Extension or industry and you will find that the single greatest expense associated with cow-calf production is feed costs. The primary component of feed costs for most operations will be forages (hay and pasture). In order to increase our chances at profitability, the cow-calf producer must reduce feed costs and this can be done most effectively through aggressive management of our forages.

Producers need to manage our forage acreage for maximum production and efficient utilization. Do we have an adequate fertility program for our forages? Are you harvesting forages at the proper maturity to optimize yield and quality? Do we store and feed hay in a fashion that will minimize wastage? Should we even make hay or rather buy it in order to increase pasture acres and thus increase the size of our herds? Have you subdivided your pastures into smaller units in order to practice rotational grazing? Are you stockpiling grasses in order to extend the grazing season? Are you planting annual forages such as oats and rye for grazing in order to reduce the amount of hay required for the winter?

4. Improving facilities.

If you are going to be in the cow-calf business for the long haul, now would be an excellent time to evaluate your cattle handling facilities and make necessary improvements. A functional, well-designed system can result in better herd health management and minimize physical risks to the animal handler. I realize that the size and part-time nature of many operations makes it difficult for many owner/operators to commit significant dollars to facility improvement. However, I believe that many proven management practices are underutilized simply because of a lack of facilities. What could you do differently in your operation if you improved a corral working system, added a new water source, constructed a few extra holding pens around the barn, or subdivided a pasture?

Improving facilities ties directly to a "hot button" issue facing today's beef producer. In light of developments in Ohio and across the nation over the past several years, we cannot ignore the animal welfare issue. Certainly good facilities can lead to animal performance benefits from improved animal treatment programs. However, quite possibly the most significant benefit to be gained from improved facilities is the safe and humane treatment of the animal itself. You may not have regular visitors to your operation observing you working cattle through your facilities. However, today's food consumer is better informed and they truly want to know more about how their food is produced. They are "watching" how we handle our animals.

5. Speak out and defend our honor.

We have come to expect the occasional attack on the livestock industry from animal rights activists. We may cringe at the latest "Hidden Camera" tapings of animal abuse that get exposed in the press. These attacks can come from every direction as evidenced by a recent article that was highly critical of the livestock industry that was published in "Rolling Stone" magazine, an entertainment industry publication. While we all may share a similar negative reaction to such industry scrutiny, do we do anything to challenge or diminish the negative feedback?

I believe it is more important than ever that we educate the non-farm public about how we go about feeding the public. When you have the opportunity to challenge myths or correct misconceptions about the beef industry with a member of the non-farm public, do you take advantage of the opportunity? The beef industry boasts many unique production systems including traditional grain-fed, grass-fed, hormone-free, all-natural, etc. that can meet the diverse demands of today's consumer. We need to remind consumers that all of these systems are necessary to meet needs of a hungry world. I personally do not believe we can feed a hungry world in the future without using modern technology to maximize the production of safe and wholesome food. However, we need a variety of production systems to offer the consumer choices as to how they spend their food dollars.

It is difficult for a single voice to fight battles for the beef industry. Now more than ever, it is important to become a member of your local, state, and national cattle organizations. We cannot expect people outside of our industry to promote our product and fight for the issues that are near and dear to us. It is our duty to the beef industry to understand the issues that threaten our livelihood and speak out individually and through the strength in numbers that a cattlemen's organization can provide.

Source: John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

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