Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Wes Ishmael

During that split second that you're still hanging from the side of a horse that's tied hard and fast to some renegade cow, busted cinch and all, you learn real quick that there's a mighty big difference between independence and freedom.

In this case, you had all of the freedom in the world to choose the nastiest day of the spring to go hunting strays by your lonesome, the freedom to choose which horse and which rope. As for independence in the matter, well, there isn't any. Whether or not you survive the imminent brushy belly flop depends on a whole lot of things, not the least of which are Lady Luck and the good Lord above.

But, we seem to have lost sight of the difference between freedom and independence in the cattle business. Every time someone starts doing something different and it looks like it could become part of standard operating procedure in the industry, we always like to trot out the notion of our independence as a fair trade-off for an actual moneymaking business.

Independence in the cattle business is like poverty in the U.S. senate: it might make for interesting coffee fodder, but it's a myth. If it wasn't, then the economic fortunes of this year's calf crop wouldn't depend on everything from how much rain Mom Nature gives up, to the strength of consumer incomes, to the price of grain, to which noxious weeds decide to pop up, to an e-coli scare in Bangladesh, etc., etc.

Consequently, it's easy to argue that rather than independence, it's freedom which cattle producers have fought so long and so rightly to maintain, the freedom to choose to be in the business, the freedom to choose how they'll mate, manage and market their cattle, the freedom to make a choice even if it doesn't make economic sense.

Moreover, current industry evolution demands that every producer define those terms themselves so that they understand what battleground they're playing on and for what spoils.

As an example, consumer-defined value-added meat products, vertically coordinated production and management systems, individual animal management and the like are the same as the markets and the weather. The success of all beef cattle operations will likely become more dependent on them, but until the balance sheet says otherwise, every producer still has the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in any or all of this evolution.

Rules of Engagement

Likewise, until the government says otherwise, every beef producer has the freedom to choose whether or not they will assume their share of responsibility for industry stewardship.

According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), there are about 37,000 NCBA members, about 150,000 members of state cattlemen's organizations and about another 80,000 members affiliated with NCBA through their respective breed organizations—about 230,000 unique members in all. Compare that to the fact that there are approximately 800,000 beef producers in this nation. Bottom line, even though they account for most of the fed cattle and over half the mama cows, not even 30 percent of this nation's beef producers are carrying the water for the other 70 percent.

And no, you don't have to be a member of a cattlemen's organization to play a positive part in the industry's health and growth. After all, it's a lot easier to pay dues than it is to actually get involved in an organization. This example merely underscores a sad fact of life that most of the folks in any endeavor wind up justifying somehow that it's OK to ride on the coat tails of others who are willing to go to bat for the industry that supports them, through active involvement.

Spun another way, the lack of industry involvement indicated by these numbers emphasizes the overall lack of leadership within the industry.

Before you pop a gasket—because chances are if you're reading this you are already actively engaged in industry stewardship—yes, like other industries, beef has been blessed with some individual leaders that would be the envy of any industry, along with some requisite lunk-heads that do more harm than good. And, yes, given the resources they have to work with, cattlemen's organizations on a local, state and national level have been able to accomplish some amazing things for the industry.

But there's still too many people pulling too many different directions and it doesn't have anything to do with cattle producers trying to maintain their independence. It has to do with freedom, the freedom of too many people who choose to leech off the system, more willing to be the part of problems than solutions.

If you doubt that, why is it, even with the threat of a government-mandated national cattle identification system, no one really knows who will create and adopt the standards of a voluntary one? Maybe it's NCBA. If you're going for numbers, it would have to be the state groups. Perhaps it's a facilitator organization like the National Institute for Animal Agriculture. Bottom line, it should come as no surprise that there is no clear direction on this issue and others like it since only the minority is working to lend direction. More active producer involvement and leadership would do nothing to guarantee clearer paths and quicker progress, but if you believe in population statistics, it would at least increase the quality of decisions to the point that the industry might not ever again have to face a debacle of its own making like mandatory price reporting promised to be and has so far become.

Leadership Starts at Home

More than anything, if folks who are already actively engaged in the industry would encourage their unengaged friends to dive in, chances are there could be plenty of benefit on both sides of the fence.

Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.” And the cattle industry continues to spawn countless examples of what's possible when individuals choose to express their freedom by working with others to try new things.

For example, have you heard about an outfit called Seedstock Plus? This is an organization comprised of about 60 seedstock producers who banded together to develop and market bulls last year. Each operation maintains their unique identity, mates and manages their cows however they want. At weaning time, though, they ship their keeper bull calves to regional development facilities where the bulls are all grown alike. Then, after the bulls are marketed, the combined power of the group means that each individual member is able to offer customers more services than ever before. Plus, these members are leveraging their own research and promotion dollars to get more bang for the buck than they can by themselves. They win. Their customers win. The industry wins.

Then there are the Cowan Brothers in South Dakota, who began putting the wheels under their Stock Link program a couple of years ago as a way to improve the profitability of their own stocker operation through individual cattle management. Today, working with the folks at AgInfoLink, they help cow/calf producers and stocker operators identify and manage their cattle individually, all automated with electronics, no matter where the cattle are. In other words no one has to worry about loading up their cattle to take them to a system, the system comes to the cattle in the pasture, wherever it is.

Or, how bout James Tout, who manages the Cienega Ranch at Willcox, Arizona? Among his many innovations, Tout has effectively doubled the carrying capacity of this desert ranch not only with high intensity, low frequency grazing, but also by plugging the ranch. In simple terms, he figured out that by strategically digging small tanks in drainage areas he can economically and effectively retain more moisture on the ranch and grow lots more forage.

You want massive scale? There's ConAgra Better Beef (the old Monfort) that is not only channeling cattle into branded beef products via pricing grids and sharing information back with the producer at no charge, but they are also working with bull suppliers to provide the sire power documented to produce the kind of carcasses they're after.

Similar, but still under wraps at this point is Future Beef Operations which is designing a value-added system from the genes all the way to retail meat cases, including their own packing house and an agreement to be the exclusive supplier to one of this nation's largest retailers.

Along with the growing number of alliances you hear about daily, are you familiar with Nichols Beef Genetics in Bridgewater, Iowa? Dave Nichols, a long-time seedstock supplier there, and an old cattle feeder at heart—not only works with feedlots to buy customer calves sired by his bulls or out of his cows, he has become the exclusive beef supplier to a growing chain of Midwestern restaurants.

Obviously, this is just a short list of examples. The beef industry has never been short of lion-hearted pioneers willing to step out front and lead by example. The challenge is to aggressively share that example with those standing on the sidelines so that they too might participate and do their part to help the industry thrive rather than merely survive.

Of course, every producer has the freedom to choose to do that or not, although the future may be dependent on the choice.


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