By Clifford Mitchell

Kansas Livestock Association attendees, in Wichita, listened as Jim Whitt, Tulsa, OK, presented an interesting discussion that traced the past, present and future of the beef industry.

Many different items were part of the discussion, with several eye-openers that could have been perceived as far fetched, at the moment, but after allowing the thought process to take effect--anything is possible.

Whitt, a dynamic speaker who entertains, motivates and educates, opened his comments with a little humor about how he had been selected to speak at the KLA convention and moved into the purpose of his program.

"Our purpose today is get your input on the future of the cattle industry, how you see yourself involved in that future and how the KLA can help you get there," says Whitt, who also writes a regular column in CALF News.

He then asked the audience to look at the beef industry in a 60-year time frame, from 1969 to 2029. The audience was separated into different groups and each group was asked for their input.

The first question Whitt asked was for producers to take a trip into the past to 1969, to see what changes had occurred in the beef industry--with a few considerations, such as in the area of food safety, the environment, etc. Fifteen minutes was given to each group to find their results.

High on the list were several things that have created a stir within the industry over the past 30 years, and maybe still muddy the waters a bit.

As random samples were taken, it was obvious beef producers did know their roots and the changes they had adapted to and overcame.

These were the most common items describing the past, maybe some of the mistakes the industry has made to things the industry has no control over, that impact the profitability picture of Kansas ranchers: Packer consolidation; importation of Continental breeds to add to the crossbreeding mix; specialization in agriculture; beef was king; environmental regulations; more working mothers; cost prohibits new blood from entering the beef industry; changes in lifestyle and eating habits; differences in demand for beef; feedlot capacities; growth of competing meats; technology involved in production practices; increased government involvement; increasing global markets; captive supplies; changes in market location and marketing practices; more women in the workplace; genetically modified organisms; more absentee owners; branded beef products; grade and yield; and food safety.

"We all look at the past pretty much the same," Whitt says, as he moderated the discussion.

The next question was to look at the next 30 years--to the year 2029--to see where the industry is headed.

This portion of the program brought some new innovative thinking from the discussion group; however, most of the answers broke into several different categories that could impact the industry.

Several groups came up with some highly innovative theories that could happen with the brain power that is continuing to develop products that are ahead of its buying public. Some of these things included: More convenient meal preparations; more convenience for consumers; space meals; scientific food safety, instead of theory; and GMO specialty grains for beef production or specialty grains could replace beef as a protein source--animals make messes and potentially could be of more value to the medical industry.

"It was interesting that someone brought up the point that genetically engineered grains would be able to replace beef as a protein source. As we look at the technology that is available today, it is much more than just what they can do with the beef product," Whitt says. "The technology is available, and producers could make a quantum leap in one generation. The only thing is people have to agree to do this. I heard a lot of things that challenged my thinking."

Others stuck with advanced production methods, such as identification systems and changes in the genetics in beef production. These included: All branded products; a lot less purebred cattle and maybe all composite cattle; and better identification methods that will track cattle back to the ranch.

"What we found out is to achieve a consistent end product, the future of the industry will depend on hybrid and composite cattle, which could be a shock to the industry. What we heard from the group is they are ready to start cooperating," Whitt says. "The grading system is confusing to the customer. They have to be able to identify their beef products in another way. Branded programs will ensure the product is the same every time. When it is left to the discretion of the butcher, you will have the full range."

Some producers even expressed a need to process products in a different manner and, get this, the segmented industry would be working together to market its end product.

These were perhaps the most invigorating conversations and included: value-based marketing will move beyond the box into the valuation of meat in the meat case; an increased amount of vertical integration in the industry; continual shrinking markets; producers will be aligned to market their own product--all on the same page in the segmented industry, which will allow for more consistent beef demand; disappearance of the live market; market cuts; use different contracts; in a production alignment system, price will travel up and down the supply chain to track higher and lower quality products; and carcasses will be processed differently.

"People are taking advantage of niche markets or branded programs. People will identify those niches and demand that product, but we also will, as a industry, have to come together to make the product consistent," Whitt says. "I think we make a mistake in agriculture when we say the only shape a farm can take is corporate or family, when, in reality, there are many options available to producers. Consumers don't ask if the steak comes from a corporate or family farm at the meat counter. To reduce it down to one or the other is a recipe for failure."

A note of confidence also was given to the audience, and well accepted, when one of the groups cited several reasons beef producers could be well on their way to better days.

Beef is back and poultry down-- one reason was because of mass antibiotic use and environmental restrictions that will try to change their production practices; consumers want natural food sources; and more overall demand, because of increasing population and a growing export market.

"It is interesting that most producers view the past in the same way, and except for a few differences of opinion, we see the future in the same manner," Whitt stated. "Have you ever seen a time in history where beef is getting so much good press. If there has ever been a time where the industry has a window of opportunity, it is now." "

Whitt then posed a question to producers that might be the very reason some of them attend educational programs, such as the KLA convention or other programs that could help them down the road. He asked the groups to evaluate some of the things they could do to be around in the next 30 years.

A lot of the things that came out of this discussion translate the solid work ethic and the need to stay one step ahead, which most beef producers have done to make a living. Producers heard things like: Adapt to the change; we won't be able to do things like we did in the past; partnerships; alliances; closed cooperatives; increased communication; off-the-farm jobs; and detailed production and projection records.

"Many of the same things producers had to do the last 30 years will be relevant in the future for survival," Whitt says.

Things are common in all businesses and sometimes thoughts or theories relative to other industries can be used to help agriculture get better. Most cattlemen agreed there were certain things the industry had to accomplish to get better. They included: Better educators; more educated about the industry; more communication between ranchers and end product consumers; and relinquish some control to find a common goal or share control or responsibility with other segments of the industry.

"When we talk to any industry, the two biggest problems are communication or people," Whitt says.

There have been discussions about some producer groups being less grassroots oriented and only taking care of the big guys. That probably is because there is less involvement by the smaller operators in these types of organizations.

It seemed the group thought membership in these types of organizations would be key in the future, because it would help accomplish some of their goals. The group thought members should maintain involvement in industry groups and give them the direction to take care of their concerns; encourage or get involved in organizations in local communities that influence and help coordinate buying decisions; do what they do best in their operation; take a proactive stance; and recruit young people into the industry.

"To accomplish any thing of greatness, we have to share authority and responsibility of the future," Whitt says.

The last question was posed by Whitt, He asked producers what they wanted the KLA to do to help them be a part of the future.

Members seem to have high expectations for their organization, but the members also had ideas that just weren't for the staff to work on.

The opinions came in a very positive fashion and were as follows: A voice at the local, state and national level; keep producers informed of new policy changes; public relations; keep shining a good light on the end product; facilitating information flow and communication between segments of the industry; possibly a greater level of funding to help provide these services; investigate and communicate about partnerships before a producer gets involved; become a more narrow focused group; be more proactive environmentally; help institute change and provide information to change; and educate members that aren't active.

"We are hearing, as we ask all these questions, that we need to have local involvement," Whitt says. "We think of the KLA as a staff and an office. They have their responsibility, just as you have a responsibility as members."

To achieve this level of cooperation, the industry has to achieve a level of communication never known before in this industry. Getting to this level of communication may well be the beef producers last gasp to improve the end product and maintain beef's traditional audience.

"The membership told us three things that stood out when we asked them what they wanted the KLA to do to help them. They say they wanted it to be a catalyst, facilitate information between the segmented industry and help producers identify the things they are going have to do to be on the cutting edge," Whitt says. "Information transfer is going to be very difficult, but we heard the challenge that come from the membership."

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