Every cattleman that has been in the business any period of time would agree that the industry has changed considerably over the last few years. One example I might give relates to a meeting I had with a purebred breeder client last week. Five years ago we would have sat in his office and he would have expounded on his herd's EPDs and the cow families he was emphasizing and how good his birth weight and weaning weight numbers were. Last Friday I sat there and listened to him spend a minute or two on those issues but then got into the ultrasounds he was running to evaluate carcass characteristics such as marbling and rib-eye areas and how the genetics he was using could contribute to retail product. We discussed how he could enhance this performance from a management and nutrition standpoint as well as from genetics.
The subject matter in cattle producer's homes and offices and coffee shops has changed substantially over the last few years. One very important area producers find themselves concerned with is quality assurance in the cattle they are producing. At one time many producers believed this was only something the feedlots had to be concerned with. We know now that its important from the time the calf hits the ground until the beef is placed in the freezer case.
This article will take a look at Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) and the programs that have grown up around it. Griffin and co-workers at the University of Nebraska have developed a nice discussion and set of guidelines concerning BQA and is the source from which much of this information has been developed.
Over the years, as people have moved from an agrarian society to other areas of employment, the relationship between most food consumers and food producers has broken down substantially; completely in many cases. The consumer's lack of knowledge about agricultural production coupled with concern for misuse of technological advances in agriculture has created great concern for the safety of their food supply. Consumers are worried that their food will be contaminated by antibiotics, hormones, and agricultural chemicals. In recent years, the issue of bacterial contamination of beef has been added to their fears. These concerns, combined with diet and health concerns for eating red meat and the cattlemen's use of the land, place tremendous pressure on the beef industry.
It is easy to understand that consumers want safe food. What does food safety really mean? To some, organically produced food is thought to answer. If organically grown food meets the same strict government standards as food produced by modern agriculture, it can be assumed to be safe. Likewise, if government approved technologies are applied appropriately, beef should be considered safe.
In 1980, cattlemen became concerned that they would lose the modern production tools they had come to rely on to improve the performance and well-being of cattle (i.e. administration of antibiotics, use of implants, etc.). To prevent that from happening, methods to ensure that their production practices were safe and would pass the scrutiny of the consumer were investigated.
In 1982, the United States Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) began working with the beef industry in the United States to develop the Pre-harvest Beef Safety Production Program. The USDA-FSIS program was aimed at avoiding drug and hormonal residues. Not wanting any additional governmental regulatory programs, and wanting a quality control program that was more inclusive than avoiding residues, the beef industry began developing the BQA program.
Between 1982 and 1985, three feedlots targeted evaluations of their production practices and, with the help of the USDA-FSIS, assessed residue risks. In 1985, after careful analysis and adjustment of some production practices, these three feedlots were certified by the USDA-FSIS as Verified Production Control feedlots. The knowledge gained during those three years now serves as the backbone for the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA) BQA program for feedlots. BQA programs have been developed in 48 states.
Why is BQA Important to Producers?
As almost everyone in the beef industry understands the news media searches hard for spectacular stories. The industry has felt the repercussions of the media's enthusiasm. While the BQA program may not be the kind of spectacular story the media is looking for, getting involved with the program is one way to show the media and consumers that cattlemen raise beef responsibly.
In addition, with today's climate favoring government control and civil litigation, involvement with BQA can provide cattlemen with an important key for avoiding government regulation or defending a civil lawsuit.
Beef quality assurance is a good business practice that identifies and avoids potential production defects. EVERY industry has a QA program of some type in place. Could you imagine purchasing a new pickup or tractor that has not been evaluated for quality of materials and workmanship from the top down? A consumer loses confidence in beef when they find a defect that escaped a cattleman's facility and entered the food production chain. This loss of consumer confidence in beef causes significant changes in the consumer's eating habits. An example of this might be the E. coli scare and is evidence of the tremendous market loss the beef industry can suffer when consumers lose confidence in the safety of beef.
Problems and Concerns about Implementing a BQA Program
The two most common concerns cattlemen have about getting involved in the BQA program are uncovering a problem they would rather not deal with and the additional work or expense they might incur. The program has shown that cattlemen produce a good product and are good stewards. The problems the program uncovered have typically been easy and inexpensive to solve. In every case, fixing the problems improved the long-term production goals of the cattlemen. For example, treated animals must be individually identified. This provided improved assessment of treatment response, allowing the cattleman to get better value from their treatment protocol. Experience has also shown that a BQA program can save the cattleman money and employees time by identifying and avoiding potential production problems.
Important Points to Remember
As in virtually any industry, cattlemen cannot foresee every potential problem in their operations. One problem area at a time must be identified, then a plan should be developed and implemented for ensuring quality in that area of production. The experience will make it easier to develop quality assurance in other areas of the operation.
1) Cattle will be free of residues and defects if cattlemen START with animals and feed ingredients that are free of residues and defects, and follow the rules for using the modern production tools selected. There are a number of safeguards built into cattle production which helps the beef industry avoid quality defects. The safeguards include:
*The handling of animals on an individual basis.
*The length of time required to produce a finished product.
*Great diversity in sources of cattle and feed ingredients.
*The quality control built into modern technologies of beef production.
2) Cow/calf, stocker and feedlot employees, managers and owners must be committed to following the rules of proper beef production and must properly use modern production technologies. Every operation employee must be trained to know, understand, and identify areas where possible contamination with violative residues or quality defects may occur. Anyone who supplies services, commodities, or products to a these producers must understand the quality assurance objectives of the cattle operation. Cattlemen must be able to document all the steps of production. Good production records allow documentation, analysis of production, and improved financial decisions.
3) Critical points in production must be monitored to ensure no residue violations or carcass defects occur. The critical points include incoming cattle, products, feeds and commodities; handling of cattle, products, feeds and commodities; and evaluation of outgoing cattle.
4) Some production areas have higher residue and carcass defect risks than others. High risk production areas include non-performing cattle, large single source feed ingredients, and brokers of non-standard supplies. Non-standard supplies include by-product feed ingredients and multiple source cattle.
Cattlemen must be able to monitor beef production to ensure it is free of residues and carcass defects that would violate BQA policy.
Getting the Program Started
For larger operations, employees and managers must be sold on the reasons for working with a BQA program. Getting started typically requires getting together on three occasions.
a) The first meeting should provide general information to everyone in the operation. Every employee should be asked to help identify potential residue and carcass defect risk areas.
b) The second meeting should be informal and include people from different areas of the feedlot. Potential risks to quality in their area should be discussed and ideas should be developed for dealing with the risks identified. A plan should be developed to implement residue and carcass defect control measures in each area of the feedlot. These plans must meet the needs of the employees, as well as management, and fit the routine work flow.
c) The third meeting should also be informal. Review the plan, make any changes identified by the people in the areas, and get started.
Failure of BQA programs during the early stages of development are most often caused by someone in management being reluctant to make a commitment to BQA, or the BQA plan does not consider the needs and problems of employees.
But a solid BQA program is not just limited to large operations. These programs and steps are just as important on small, one-man operations as well. In part two of this series we'll evaluate the steps needed by the smaller producer as well as continue the overall discussion of the BQA Program.
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.