by: Clifford Mitchell

The humbling nature of the beef business has changed more than one rugged, tough cowboy. As cattlemen work away from authoritarian into more of a listening mode, most try to soak up each nugget of information that may help establish future production parameters. The elusive word profitability always tied to most of this information.

Industry changes, drought and difference in consumer appeal have brought a few unforeseen challenges. The depressed economy has certainly played a role, but most have taken the tougher times in stride working to improve the product to position the outfit for prosperity when the market turns.

Over capacity, volatile corn and energy prices not to mention decrease in consumer demand have put a choke hold on the industry. Reduced profit and red ink have caused a significant loss in equity for the feeding industry. Partners the cow/calf man can ill afford to lose and are imperative to fulfill his genetic plan. Progressive operators take this not as a time to sit tight, but as a time to keep moving forward. Maintaining some knowledge of the end product is vital to future success.

“Producers need to think about retaining ownership on a portion of the calf crop or partner on them through the feeding process. Most are trying to buy what are supposed to be the best genetics. When we feed them, those genetics sometimes aren't as good as we thought,” says Dan Dorn, Decatur County Feed Yard, Oberlin, Kansas.

“As seedstock producers we have to be cognizant of carcass data even though we may not be getting paid right now. We have a responsibility to our customers to know our genetics. I think we'll get paid in the future because we know something about our cattle,” says Ben Spitzer, Salacoa Valley Farms, Fairmount, Georgia.

“It's always important to know what you're producing. Even though the markets have changed quite a bit from a year or two ago,” says Mike Healy, LU Ranch, Worland, Wyoming.

As cattlemen tighten their belts, obviously profit is still the number one goal. Making genetic improvement is a long term commitment. For most, knowing is half the battle.

“We had been concerned about percent choice as we re-stocked the ranch after a bad drought. We selected heifers that had better marbling through ultrasound data,” Healy says. “It didn't take long to figure out we had improved marbling and increased the percentage of yield grade 4s. It took several years to realize this and it will take several years to make a change. If we didn't feed our cattle and get data, this could have gone on for a long time. Buyers would have discounted our calves and we wouldn't have known why we couldn't improve.”

“We are in the infancy of getting data back on our genetics. We have sent cattle to Decatur County Feedyard to be evaluated on an individual basis. Our customers have participated in the Tri County Carcass contest in Iowa,” Spitzer says. “We have also gotten gain data from a local backgrounder. It's important to have benchmark data.”

“Producers need to focus on “return to the ranch” every year. How many dollars do I put in my pocket? For most, carcass data is pretty humbling,” Dorn says. “The industry needs to maintain quality and muscle in these cattle because it takes so long to get it back. Benchmark and keep getting data back on the herd.”

Brahman-influenced breeds have taken their share of criticism from the feeding sector. Brangus genetics have made progress through the years working to find the balance and having a successful product.

“Brangus genetics bring some good things to the table. Feed efficiency, carcass weight and carcass quality, are all profit indicators. I don't see a problem with these cattle coming north and adapting to different environments,” Dorn says. “Breeders, over the years, have placed too much emphasis on marbling and lost some power. We've fed Brangus cattle that work. Seedstock producers need to help commercial cattlemen cultivate these top genetics and the only way to do it is to get some harvest data back.”

“It's kind of an uphill battle and historically we haven't helped ourselves as much as we could. Sometimes we as breeders select for one trait at the expense of another. We have to take a balanced approach,” Spitzer says. “Our Brangus cattle seem to work well in the northern climates. We're just trying to be proactive in proving the carcass merit in these cattle. It will help our customers in the long run.”

Genetic improvement comes with a laundry list of “tried and true” ways to overcome adversity. Constantly looking for ways to get better is at the forefront for most operations. The line must be drawn to stick with long term goals and not try to adjust to different market trends.

“Producers can't chase the market by changing genetics. Maintain focus on the long term goals for quality and yield grade,” Dorn says. “Find what works from a grade and muscle standpoint, ask yourself “Am I efficient” and cull the bottom 20 percent of the herd based on carcass data. Producers who can do this year-in and year-out will make the most genetic progress.”

“Our mission is to be focused on genetic improvement any way we can. We can't ignore carcass data or carcass traits just because we're not getting paid for it right now,” Spitzer says. “If we can break even in this market and get carcass data, it's worth it. Our production cycle is so extended we have to take advantage of every tool we can as long as we're taking steps in the right direction.”

“We're under pressure to find the profitable model and continue making genetic improvement. The only way to do this is to keep plugging away. We have tried different things, but I don't think we really understand what the market wants today,” Healy says. “It's good to discover non-performers or outliers in the herd. If she produces Standards and costs you money it's time to get rid of those cows. Even though we're retaining a smaller percentage of our steer calves, at least I still have the opportunity to remove some of these outliers.”

On the coat tails of genetic improvement, producers need to realize where their genetics fit in the big picture. Finding peace of mind will help establish long term goals.

“Brangus is a maternal breed, with above average carcass merit. I look at reproductive efficiency first; no calf at all has pretty bad feedlot performance. Growth and carcass traits are next. Our Brangus calves have competed real well against their counterparts in feedyard efficiency,” Spitzer says. “I expect my bull customers to take advantage of heterosis and breed complementarity through crossbreeding. We have to hold up our end from a carcass quality standpoint.”

Cattlemen have never before seen the amount of data or the paper trail they have today. A good brand or identification is still important, but not enough information to follow your calves through the production process.

“There will be a day when consumers demand age and source documentation. Unfortunately, I don't know if this information will be at a premium or just for producers to avoid that discount,” Dorn says. “Producers need to pay attention to the little things and keep doing what they do well. Health and nutrition are as important to quality and yield grade as genetics.”

New technology is always evolving in the beef business. From reproduction improvements to trying to improve the odds of knowing carcass potential, the research arm of the industry has been moving forward with a full head of steam. Much like new diesel engines, there will be a few bugs in the system. However, producers, at some point, must take a chance on these new scientific methods.

“The industry has some neat tools available to it that I am not sure we know how to use yet. Things like DNA markers are going to be a factor in the future,” Spitzer says. “Tenderness seems to be a hot topic right now. We aren't really getting paid for tenderness, but we alienate a customer every time they get a bad steak. It's hard to pencil the costs of some of these tools, but we have to start somewhere.”

“We are buying some bulls that have been tested for feed efficiency. It's still going to take a while to replace the herd bull battery. That will have an effect on genetic improvement. I have to be careful. I want a bull that can be efficient with feed, but he needs to grow at an acceptable rate. We have to make changes when change is available. It's easy to make mistakes at the beginning of a change with new data,” Healy says. “There is obviously a demand for higher marbled meat and tenderness. As we improve our ability to measure these traits we'll start meeting that demand.”

“DNA will play a role as the technology continues to improve. In the future, I'll know more about what a producer has before he feeds them,” Dorn says. “Tenderness is a trait we're all looking to improve. DNA markers will help us do this at some point. Maybe through DNA, we'll know how to better manage the cattle.”

Along with new technology, producers face a different consumer. Today's consumer is more concerned with things like where was it grown or a raising practice, rather than quality grade. Brand names or brand recognition should continue to be an important part of the buying decisions.

“It will be interesting to follow the beef industry and how it treats this “new age” customer. The beef industry is fortunate to be conducted in a healthy, outdoor atmosphere,” Healy says. “We have a natural, healthy product and we need to keep it that way. Take the criticism and turn it into opportunity.”

“Consumers are training themselves through media or food safety, faster than we thought. It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts,” Dorn says. “The consumer will go to the grocery looking for a certain brand. Each brand will have its own specifications. Producers need to know what they have so they get paid for what they produce.”

As the beef industry struggles to find its identity, most will agree the days are over placing carcass value on a small percentage of middle meats. New thoughts and revelations will come as the consumer speaks. Hopefully, this time the industry will listen.

Profitability, at some point, has to return to the feeding sector. Cattlemen that stay on the correct path to genetic improvement could position themselves for tremendous gain. Remaining focused and patient will test the will of even the most positive thinkers.

“Our Brangus cattle will work in a variety of markets, if people will take balance, moderation and multiple trait selection to heart. It's not real sexy, but it seems to work,” Spitzer says. “Markets and recessions have a lot to do with producers making bad decisions. The balanced approach catches the market both ways.”

“It's a time where even though it's costly in the feedlot, we can't afford to make drastic changes, because we don't know if the market has changed,” Healy says. “Our efforts are to target long term goals and don't try to change quickly. Stay the course. That target may have to change eventually, but we can't be jumping back and forth.”

“The frustrating thing about genetics is one mistake takes a long time to overcome. Producers have to keep their eye on the ball and don't drop it,” Dorn says. “Focus on efficiency, carcass quality and pounds. Select cattle that do the best job in your environment. If producers can find that balance where cattle work on the ranch and in the feedyard, they should be well positioned as profitability returns to the industry.”


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