Over the last couple of issues we have been discussing the factors and implications requiring consideration if a cattle breeder, as well as a breed as a whole, is to remain competitive into the new millennium. One thing that the vast array of breeds found in the United States has given us is a tremendous amount of choice. For a breeding program to maintain a firm footing in the industry requires that the choice it provides is what the consumer wants. The key to this statement is that it may not be what the breeder or association wants or thinks that it wants. Additionally, the statement “Well that's the way we've always done it,” or “That's the way my Granddaddy and Daddy did it,” have absolutely NO place in the beef industry's vernacular any longer.
Let's review briefly the issues we discussed in the last couple of articles and bring this whole matter to a positive close.
Who or What is Your Market?
Remember the old saying “the customer is always right.” Time after time, business people find this to be true, often at great expense. No matter how much we want to tell that customer what he or she should want, sooner or later they will come back and tell you what they really desire mainly by how they use their checkbook. The beef industry is learning this the hard way and is beginning to realize that in order to effectively market it's product this product has to be of high, consistent quality that matches the value we place on it. This quality and value, however has to match the customer's
PERCEPTION of it.
We have to remember that we're not in the cattle business - we're in the beef or more specifically, the food business. We have to produce a quality product and we have to do it efficiently. We don't dictate what goes into the market, the market tells us what it wants and what it will pay for. Finally the new realizations in the industry affect ALL beef producers - packer, feedlot, stocker operator, commercial cow/calf producer, purebred or seedstock producer. If a producer is in a given part of the industry - one of those listed above - it's easy to take a very narrow view of whom your customer is. Often we can envision it as being that segment of the production pipeline that is directly above you or whom it is that buys your product. As indicated above, the customer we have to satisfy is the end consumer; the person that will buy that cut of beef at the grocery store or walk into a fine steakhouse and order a 16 ounce T-bone instead of going to the new, trendy establishment down the street for some art deco chicken.
Much of what I am saying has been said before but it needs to be said again and again and again until the many producers and breeders we have in this country get the message. It starts with the breeders and seedstock producers and then on to the commercial cow/calf producer. The genetics that you select and traits that you breed for ultimately mold the product that ends up in the meat case. Subsequent management does play an important role in meat quality but the herds or breeds that will remain viable and competitive are those that will most effectively do the following:
1) Develop a genetic base that will produce a calf that will gain weight efficiently and that will produce a carcass that contains the meat products in the greatest concentrations that are of value to the consumer. Carcass or meat value is based on our beef grading system. Remember that there are two types of beef grades in the United States--quality grades and yield grades. Beef carcasses may carry a quality grade, a yield grade or both a quality and yield grade.
Quality grades indicate expected palatability or eating satisfaction of the meat;
yield grades are estimates of the percentage of boneless, closely trimmed
retail cuts from the round, loin, rib and chuck, the cuts of greatest demand and which can be sold for the greatest return.
2) Develop a genetic base that will produce a calf that, as it goes through the marketing pipeline does not suffer significant losses of value from stress, excessive morbidity (sickness) and mortality (deathloss).
The value of the calf, as it goes along the various marketing channels, is greatly affected by what additional input costs must be incurred for that animal to produce. If a given type of animal is known or THOUGHT (remember perception?) to have a greater problem dealing with stress or if deathlosses or sickness is more of a problem in that type of animal, buyers will be less inclined to purchase this animal over a type with less of a problem. This is simply a case of economics where the first type of calf costs more to get through the pipeline than the second (the less problematic animal) and is therefore less profit producing. Some of these issues can be handled by management using techniques such as preconditioning and more extensive processing prior to weaning and especially shipping. But some has to come from within - the animal's genetic base which makes it more resistant to these stressors. In other words, the breeding and selection of the herd or breed can and does have a direct effect on the profitability of that animal on down the road.
3) Develop a genetic base that creates a cow that is hardy and efficient, resistant to disease, reproductive under adverse conditions and adaptable to a host of environmental circumstances. This is pretty self-explanatory. The cow herd has to be productive and efficient under a variety of conditions. A cattleman simply cannot afford to own a herd of cows that will produce a marginal calf crop, both in numbers and quality if the conditions turn adverse (drought, cold, wet, etc.). A cow herd must be able to extract the majority of it's needed nutrients from it's environment with only small amounts (if any) of supplementation of protein, energy and minerals and still remain productive.
This simply says no matter what breed we are referring to, it has to have the ability to meet the criteria listed above.
Reaching These Goals
The beef industry in recent years has spent million's of dollars researching what it is that the consumer wants. Fortunately much of this may be paying off for the industry in general with greater demand and subsequent improved beef prices. But how does this translate back to the smaller cow/calf operator and more particularly to the seedstock producer? Also, how does a breeder or association accomplish these goals?
First, we have to understand that we can't accomplish all of these overnight. From a breed's perspective it will take a fair amount of yelling, screaming and gnashing of teeth in order to get members to come to an agreement on what they want to do and where they want to go. This is where the complexity comes in since each breeder has his perspective and opinion as well as what he or she thinks is important. It will be necessary to take a hard look at what needs to be accomplished and put some opinions aside for the time being for the benefit of all concerned. Additionally, it will require that some producers enter this situation with more of an open mind than is typical. It also requires that these breeders get out and take an honest look at what the industry wants.
Using the Tools We Have
Once it has been decided that a producer or breed is going to move forward to produce cattle that do a better job meeting the consumer needs described above it must be determined how this will be accomplished. The first and foremost requirement will be:
Keeping Records. I stress to clients on a regular basis that keeping accurate records is probably one of the single most valuable practices any cattle breeder can implement. Unfortunately, many breeders do not keep the records they need and in some cases none are kept at all with exceptions of receipts that are used for tax time. In the last issue you were provided a fairly detailed list of data points which need to be recorded. Obviously this will generate a tremendous amount of data. It will also provide information needed to accomplish several items including:
1) Determining where you stand at a given point in time
2) Provide a picture of how the herd is performing
3) Help you identify key areas that need changing
4) Help identify animals that are excelling in performance or that are not pulling their weight
5) Help you develop a long-range plan to accomplish the herd and breed improvements we've been discussing.
Identifying those individuals which work and those that do not is vitally important. One concern that many breeders have is that the individuals or families that they have built large portions or even all of their programs on may fall into that category of those that do not work. However, it is important to determine where you stand as a producer so you know where to go from there in making necessary changes to meet the industry.
Gain testing is a very valuable tool in determining the performance of both male and female cattle. Typically we use this primarily on bulls but it could be applied to females as well to determine what the costs are to get that animal to breeding age and to first calf. This needs to be performed both in forage based and high grain settings to determine how these cattle will perform in each of these situations. Every breeder should be gain testing his cattle in some shape, form or fashion.
Another valuable tool that is gaining more widespread use is that of ultrasound measurement of yearling cattle. Ultrasound use in cattle performs a similar function to its use by obstetricians - it provides a non-invasive look at what's going on inside of the body. In the cattle industry it has become increasingly valuable in measurement of rib-eye areas and other carcass characteristics. The reason it is so valuable is that it saves us significant amounts of time, instead of having to wait until a given animal is slaughtered and hung on the rail to measure carcass characteristics. Additionally, we can measure a bull himself instead of having to wait for his offspring to be fed and slaughtered. Finally, these measurements need to be taken at time periods in their life where the data is meaningful when translated to cattle in the production pipeline. In short it can save a huge amount of time.
Another important tool that is coming into more widespread use is electronic data or animal tracking. By implanting an electronic chip under the skin of an animal it can be tracked along different points of the production chain to determine where it came from and how it performed at earlier stages. This can even be performed by use of bar-coded ear tags but the problem here is that these are less permanent and more easily lost. Either way, an animal's performance can be tracked and compiled all along the marketing chain in order to give a more complete picture of this animal. Perhaps more importantly, it gives buyers, especially packers and feedyards the ability to trace back to some starting point those animals that are very productive and those that are less so. From this standpoint, they can pinpoint those operations which are doing an exceptionally good job and producing the genetics that create a more valuable product. Unfortunately, it also gives them a way to identify those operations which are producing cattle that are less desirable. Ultimately they will have the ability to determine which herds produce cattle they can afford to pay more for and which they have to offer less.
The Cattle Feeders Perspective
I had the opportunity to visit at length with several feedyard managers on this issue as well as some other industry members which affect much of the policy that governs the beef business. Almost to a man, they told me that what EVERY breeder needs to do at least once is to carry a group of his cattle all the way through the feedyard and then SELL that group of cattle to a packer buyer. What they mean by this is that each breeder needs to see how his cattle perform, with his own eyes, all the way through the beef production process. He could then see the costs of producing cattle that experience greater or lower levels of stress, higher or lower levels of sickness and deathloss and get a picture of the financial implications his cattle have farther up the line. Subsequently, he then needs to stand out in that pen with a packer buyer and sell the merits of that group of cattle in terms of their carcass quality and why that group of animals will be worth more when cut into steaks. Obviously the packer selling scenario is largely rhetorical but I agree that in order for a breeder or a breed in general to gain a better understanding of what they are doing and what needs to be done they need to push as many of their own cattle through the system as they can and follow them from start to finish (literally). Once they have this information they can compare it to other breeds and breed types and see where they are strong and where they are missing the boat.
The issues raised by these last articles raises some hard questions that many breeds and breeders will be required to answer. In many cases they already have and they don't like the answers they are getting. Be that as it may, these issues, especially those illustrating weaknesses on the part of animal performance must be addressed and addressed soon in order to maintain a footing in the industry and in order to be around in the coming years. I encourage every breeder and every association to step up to the plate ask those hard questions and look for the answers with their eyes wide open. Asking the questions and taking the steps will guide your herd or breed into the new frontier of continued survival and improved profitability in the future.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at P. O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.