Beef + Transparency = Trust
By Kylene Scott
Editor's note: The is the first part of a two-part series. Watch for the second part in next week's edition of High Plains Journal.
The beef industry is a complex one, and at times a messy one, but farmers and ranchers want consumers to know exactly what goes on behind the scenes. Researchers, feedlot operators, veterinarians, animal behavior specialists and others gathered in early October in Denver, Colo., to help tell the beef production story.
Organizers hoped the event would put modern beef production in a positive light, by letting real producers illustrate their lives and jobs during separate segments. Each speaker aimed to provide factual, honest and objective information. Most in the audience were from "influencers" from various areas outside of the beef industry. They included consumer media, food writers, nutritionists and food-business executives.
Sponsored by Colorado State University, Center for Meat Safety and Quality along with Colorado beef producers and the Beef Checkoff Program, the event helped attendees examine each aspect of the beef industry.
Kevin Pond, Ph.D., of Colorado State University perhaps best described the event's purpose and the purpose of beef.
"Telling beef's story is a good one," Pond said. "It's simple. Cattle are for meat."
Chandler Keys' segment, aptly titled "Beef, it's more than just the sizzle," led the audience through the life cycle of a typical beef animal. Keys represents JBS SA on Capitol Hill.
"The beef cowherd is about 29 to 30 million head, the lowest since 1950s," Keys said. "And we are producing the same amount if not more beef with that many cattle."
In the United States, Keys said there are about 750,000 cow-calf operators, but the average farmer or rancher only has about 40 head, and that number is even smaller in certain areas.
"Some guys have cows because they have poor land. They are a walking bank account," Keys said. "It's a sideline for either off-farm (work) or their farming operation. A lot of guys have it on the side and it's not their biggest money maker."
To live a "pure middle class lifestyle" a cow-calf operator would need to have between 400 and 500 mother cows. Not many can afford to do that or have enough land, he said.
Keys explained the difference in spring calving versus fall calving and why producers choose a certain way, as well as weaning options. Most calves range from 300 to 600 pounds when they are weaned, depending on area and calving system used. Many are sold at weaning time.
"Ninety percent of them go through an auction barn," Keys said. "Many are bought by backgrounders and stockers. They put them on grass until they are about a year old."
Stockers, Keys said, probably have the least amount of capital invested than any part of the beef production cycle as they only have them half a dozen months and already own (or rent) the land. The stocker cattle then go on to the feeders.
"Twelve hundred feedyards have 85 percent of the fed cattle," Keys said. "The vast majority are yearlings or just a little older."
Cattle remain in the feedyard about 150 to 200 days and are fed a ration containing corn, a protein base, a lot of forage and ionophores. The additive helps the cattle's rumen deal with the grain-based diet. From the feedyard, the cattle make their final stop at the slaughter plant.
"Slaughter is slaughter is slaughter," Keys said. "They still get knocked, bled, split and cooled."
There are four major slaughterers--Tyson, Cargill, National and JBS SA. Those four do 85 percent of the slaughtering in the United States. There are smaller regional plants as well, Keys explained. The vast majority of U.S. beef goes to domestic needs such as retail and food service. Some is exported though.
"America is done eating, and the rest of the world is growing," Keys said about beef exports. Brazil has become a big player in the beef export market. "Their (Brazil) domestic consumption is skyrocketing."
Places like Asia, North Africa, and Europe will wake up one day and realize their beef deficits, Keys said, and they can't sit around for long.
"It might seem simple. It's not just grass and cowboy hats and the sizzle at the end of the day," Keys said. "There are lots of parts. We could never be consolidated like chicken or pork. You can't grow beef cows in barns. It won't work. It's been tried."
Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D., a sustainability researcher with National Cattlemen's Beef Association, first discussed what sustainability was and how it impacts beef production.
Stackhouse-Lawson said there is a huge discrepancy between livestock and transportation emissions. According to the EPA livestock only accounts for 3.4 percent while transportation puts in 28 percent of green house gasses into the environment--while other studies suggest livestock contributes 18 percent.
"Sustainability is bigger than just greenhouse gasses," she said. "Soon we are going to have to grow more with less. (Predictions) are there will be 9 billon people by 2050."
Stackhouse-Lawson said the United States has an advantage over other parts of the world when it comes to beef production.
"(We) are good at managing our resources," she said. "The rest of the world--not so much."
A report Stackhouse-Lawson referenced concluded that intense livestock production could be part of a long-term solution since production efficiency enhances sustainability. In 2010, the beef checkoff set out to develop a comprehensive analysis of beef production's environmental impacts and identify steps to ensure sustainability.
The study initiated a detailed lifecycle analysis doesn't just focus on greenhouse gases, but will include environmental issues like:
--Economic issues; and
"Where we began is not where we are today," Stackhouse-Lawson said. The study has greatly evolved, and will include a number of things: pre-harvest and post-harvest components, impacts from the 1970s with those from 2005 and 2011. The comparisons aim to provide baseline data and a glimpse at trends over time. Researchers are collaborating with USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., in developing the pre-harvest model and with chemical company BASF on the post-harvest portion.
About 90 percent of the pre-harvest portion is complete, as is about 80 percent of the post-harvest study. Once the analysis is complete, the group plans to identify priority areas or sustainability challenges along the beef value chain. Eventually, they plan to provide interactive self-assessment tools for each production phase, helping ranchers, feeders, packers and others identify specific areas for improvement within their operations.
The bottom line, Stackhouse-Lawson says, is that "we have a sustainable product, but we want to make it even more sustainable. We are on a journey, not a destination."
Colorado rancher Sara Shields is passionate about her job and lifestyle.
"It's not an easy business," Shields said. "To understand the beef industry, you start with the heart of the crew."
Shields works on her family's multi-generational cow-calf operation, the San Isabel Ranch, near Westcliffe, Colo., and follows her passion for the industry and has responded to changes throughout the years. Dealing with water limitations, grass leases and other issues, the family ranch has survived through the years, and Shields credits that to diversity.
"Every ranch has to be so diversified to survive and have a great business plan," she said.
It doesn't hurt that their ranch is at the foot of the picturesque San Isabel Mountains either, and most recently the ranch has begun to rent out an old bunkhouse to visitors.
"A picture can stir emotions and create connections when words fail," she said.
Gary Teague, a feedlot operator followed Shields' presentation and also stressed the importance of family in his operation.
"In our operation, my kids are my barometer. They will tell me if I'm doing it right," Teague said. "I haven't seen another industry that's incentivized like ag is. Think about it. If we do it and do it well, and find a way to pass it along to our kids (we succeed.)"
Teague had much the same take on sustainability as Stackhouse-Lawson did, and stressed the impacts on the social system as well as the economic and environmental sustainability of the beef industry. It is not a new philosophy he said, and the science is there to be able to tell beef products are safe.
"It's important to me that the neighbors know what is going on (with the animals) and why," Teague said. "I feed my own kids the same product that I put on your plates."
Farmers not having cows is a mystery to Teague.
"I don't know how you can't be a farmer and not have cows," he said. "You can't be efficient if you are leaving all that (feed) out in the field."
Taking something that humans can't use and turning it into a useful product is impressive to Teague.
"It's an amazing process turning grass that we don't want to eat into protein we do want to eat," Teague said.
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.