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Where Is The Beef?

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Common concerns of many involved in the "Beef Industry" are "What is our current status?" and "Where are we going?" I am not sure that anyone can address these concerns fully; however, we should gain insight into them by exploring who cattle producers are and who is guiding the industry.

Who are cattle producers?
Recent (1998) data reveal that the "average-sized" beef cow operation has 40 cows. The largest operation is listed as having 38,000 cows and one would assume the smallest has one cow which in itself creates a huge difference in the circumstances under which calves are produced. Who are these operators? Based on my experiences, beef cow operators generally fall into one or more of the following categories:

  1. Primary producers
  2. Significant income producers
  3. Casual or part-time producers
  4. Investors
  5. Resource managers
  6. Corporate owners
  7. Traditional/lifestyle producers

Primary producers rely on beef as their primary source of income in other words, beef cattle are their primary or sole means of support. Significant income producers derive a significant amount of their income from beef cattle but have other income to rely upon. Casual or part-time producers have other income as their primary livelihood but produce beef cattle because they like them or desire to supplement their primary source of income. Investors risk their money in the cattle business instead of the stock market, bank account, or other investments and they hope to recoup their money and receive a return on it. Resource managers have cattle as a means to produce income from their resources (land, hay, feed, labor, etc.). Corporate owners tend to have larger operations and own cattle, and usually other assets, in an attempt to increase the financial position of the corporation and its stockholders.

Traditional/lifestyle producers are in the cattle business for various reasons, but usually because Dad, Granddad, or some other relative was a cattle producer, they like the "way of life," and they are carrying on the cattle business because it is their tradition.

As we move up the production chain from cow-calf to stocker, feeder, packer, and beyond, the size and structure of beef entities change. Operations get larger and the number of operators decreases. Thus, we are taking calves produced by many operators for various reasons and trying to make them become similar end products for a considerably smaller number of entities as we move up the production chain. This process seems to resemble taking all the children in the United States from their diverse backgrounds and expecting them all to finish college and have excellent work habits, similar social skills, and a common goal of paying off the national debt before they marry or buy a new car. It is not going to happen!

Who is guiding the industry? This group is almost as varied as the producers are. We might categorize those who guide or influence what happens in the beef industry as follows:

  1. Beef-related associations
  2. Agricultural advisors
  3. Financial advisors/institutions
  4. Agricultural suppliers
  5. Cattle marketers/purchasers
  6. Service providers
  7. Agricultural authors/literature
  8. Family and/or work-related associates
  9. Breeding stock/seed stock producers

The beef-related associations are local, state, and national organizations as well as alliances, farm insurance groups, etc. Agricultural advisors are consultants, agricultural extension agents, consultants employed by producer cooperatives, and many others who serve in a consulting role. Financial advisors/institutions generally are the financiers of a beef operation.

They sometimes not only determine what and how much is produced, but also whether a producer is in or out of business. Agricultural suppliers, whether the feed store man, the vet supplier, the fertilizer supplier, or many others, have a huge influence on beef production, and their collective input helps shape output from the beef industry. Cattle marketers/purchasers are those who act either as middlemen or purchasers of cattle. Their likes and dislikes as well as needs and wants help determine which cattle are in demand.

Service providers such as veterinarians, AI technicians, and ultrasound technicians also influence production decisions in beef operations. Information from magazines, books, newspapers, radio, or television influences producers' thought processes. What other family members and work associates (hired hands, partners, neighbors, etc.) think also affects beef producers. Certainly those who produce the breeding stock influence the type of beef that is produced. How seed stock changes over time is a definite influence on the beef available in the market.

What about the consumers? Shouldn't they be helping guide the industry?

When we take a look at all these "advisors," consider the accuracy and validity of their input, and compound that with the diversity of the producer makeup, we begin to understand why the problems and solutions of the beef industry are complex. The big question is how to improve our situation.

History has shown beef producers are independent and slow to change. Perhaps in order to progress we must lose some of our independence (and stubbornness), band together toward common production goals, and present a product that is in demand by the consumer. We need to abandon some of our "traditional ways" and be innovative! Competing meats are taking beef's market share and producing their products at lower costs. We must figure out how to compete whether it is with superior products, cheaper methods of production, or new product development. We must solve the puzzle or we may become obsolete and be forced out of business.