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Will beef survive?

03/21/2012 @ 9:56am

When the nation's beef producers gathered in Nashville for the 2012 Cattle Industry Convention (www.beefusa.org), they had plenty of big issues to discuss.

It's an election year and a new farm bill year. Several policy issues crowded the agenda of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) business meetings.

● Death Tax. It's officially called the estate tax, and they're against it. NCBA wants it eliminated on estates up to $10 million.

● Farm Dust Regulation. They're against this one, too. Ranchers accept dust as part of doing business.

● Equal Access to Justice Act. Against this as well. Cattle producers say it allows radical environmentalists to target ranchers who graze public lands.

● 2012 Farm Bill. They want it smaller, with fewer livestock provisions (or none at all), and more rights to manage their own resources.

● Transportation. NCBA wants more uniformity across states; more weight, length, and capacity of stock trailers.

What about the gorilla?

While all of those may be worthy issues, the 800-pound gorilla in the cattle barn is this: Is there a place for cattle in the new energy-based agriculture? Is the slide in cattle numbers irreversible? Will we continue to bleed pasture acres until the few cattle left are fed for Asian consumers?

The statistics are sobering. Every year, U.S. cattle numbers shrink. As of January 1, 2012, inventory was at 90.8 million head, 2% below a year ago, and the lowest cattle inventory since 1952. The devastating drought in the South has had a big hand in that over the last two years, but that's not the full story.

“Per capita beef consumption is down 35% from its peak; pork may soon pass it. Chicken leads them both by 30 pounds.”

We've lost about a third of all cattle producers in the last 20 years, mostly small- and medium-size cow-calf operators in the Midwest. New corn acres that we find and plant every year were once pastures and rotated hay fields.

Per capita beef consumption is down 35% from its peak; pork may soon pass it. Chicken leads them by 30 pounds.

Exports of beef were up 21% last year, mostly bound for Asian consumers; 10% of U.S. beef is now consumed elsewhere.

Best prices ever!

Counter the doomsday talk with the fact that prices are very good for those who kept their cows. In fact, all-time good – slaughter steers are $1.25 a pound, light feeder calves up to $2 a pound! But here's the question: got cows?

Bill Rhea, a cattleman from Arlington, Nebraska, likes the record attendance at the Convention. “We haven't attracted young people because of a lack of money in farming and ranching,” he says. “Well, the money is back. You can still get a start with a few cows and grow.”

Polly Ruhland, the new CEO of the Cattlemen's Beef Board, says, “It costs so much to get started [in ranching], and many young people lack access to it. We loose young talent in this industry every day due to the lack of capital.”

When will producers address the issues that determine how many people raise beef 20 years from now? Will they champion policy that encourages enterprise and crop diversification? Will they develop forage-based feedlot rations? Or create beef products better adapted to take out? Only time and really good leadership will give us the answers.

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