by: Steve Suther

The real world ain't what it used to be. Of course, it changes all the time. But the idea may have changed fastest of all.

Back in the 1950s, Einstein called reality “merely an illusion … a very persistent one.” That mathematical postulate has wormed its way into our culture, along with its inverse: illusion has become a persistent reality.

Over the years, language changes with culture. “Real world” came to mean practical, as compared to the “ivory towers of academia” just like real-world folks said pointless discussions were “academic.”

We talked about the real world after graduation, and the harsh reality of unscripted life compared to utopian movie fiction, as in Alan Jackson's 1990 country music hit, “Here in the Real World.”

About that time, political mastermind Lee Atwater coined the phrase, “perception is reality,” describing his strategy of using media manipulation to win elections.

Those were the days when the beef industry was waking up to a new reality: the consumer is the boss. Before the 1990s, almost nobody knew what they were producing or whether it suited consumer tastes.

The ambitious cattleman wanted heavier sale weights each year. The truly enlightened, those with financial records, wanted that at a lower cost per cow – pounds of calf that somebody else down the chain could turn into commodity beef. That was the real world.

But there were still academics exploring what-ifs, and there were the dreamers who ignored conventional wisdom, those unreasonable people who are the root of progress.

By the end of the decade, one way or another, an entire sector of the economy had been transformed from one that expected people to eat whatever ended up on their plates to one that read the market signals and increasingly produced what people's pocketbooks said they wanted on their plates.

Real-time ultrasound was a great tool to help identify the genetics that worked on the ranch as well as in the feedlot and packing plant. Real-world data helped cattlemen see what their cattle were doing in those post-weaning worlds.

But conflicting visions of the beef industry conducted verbal warfare. Those holding one view of an ideal beef industry positioned those who disagreed as out of touch with the real world. Self-proclaimed on-target groups chided others as out of touch with reality.

Can you afford to give up a free lunch? Everything is the same under the hide. The only price discovery you need to worry about is the amount filled out on your check. Get real. The truth is, of course, more complicated.

Breed association database tools like expected progeny differences (EPDs) can be brought to bear on within-herd records, observations, feedlot closeouts and carcass data to show you the ultimate real world of beef production. Which bulls work on your cows, or even which cows can be sorted into breeding groups to mate with this bull to produce calves closer to the ideal?

Just as most full-time beef producers become well grounded in this world, knowing that consumers call the shots, the most vocal consumers seem to have discovered Atwater's reality. They make up what Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute calls “idea tribes.”

Local beef is better than any other. Grass-fed is better than grain-fed. Beef from each farm is like wine from each vineyard.

Regardless of science, perception fuels these real niche markets. If they offer you an opportunity, fill the niche responsibly. Don't build up the myth that there is something wrong with the rest of high-quality beef in the U.S.

Next time in Black Ink ® Miranda Reiman will consider celebrating successes. Questions? Call toll-free at 877-241-0717 or e-mail steve@


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