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Wanted: more cows, more cowboys, more cowgirls

It's easy to say, at any particular time, an industry is at a critical point in determining its future. Sometimes, whether true or not, it's a good way to get a person's attention.

I think it's absolutely true of the beef industry right now. It's critical because we've been in a numbers free fall for several years, especially since the advent of the ethanol era.

We used to have over 40 million beef cows in the U.S.; now it's 32 million, a number that may still be declining. At one time, cattle ate up more of the corn crop than any other user segment. Now, ethanol takes up just about half the crop, and cattle eat less than 15% of it.

We're The Tail Now

The dog still wags its tail, not the other way around. Ethanol is the dog, these days. And the cattle industry, long the king of agriculture, has somehow become the tail. Ethanol gets what it wants, and few of us want to question that because it's all about energy independence.

But it puts a hurt on many livestock folks, and cattle producers take the biggest lump.

It costs nearly twice as much to raise and feed cows as it did just 10 years ago. A lot of good cattle people have given it up, turning their pastures into cornfields. Can't blame them, but I don't like being part of a shrinking industry, especially a good one like beef.

While it's a critical time for the future of beef production and the direction we're going, there is a big positive that can help us through these next few significant years — times are good for those who stuck it out.

Fat cattle and young calves are in record territory, pricewise. People who buy and graze stockers had their best year ever in 2010 — $100 a head profit!

It's best to face a momentous point in your history with the markets working for you. There are more resources at your disposal.

Long-Range Plan

Fortunately, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) leadership has watched the shrinking numbers and put a task force in place to come up with a long-range plan for the industry. A draft of their proposal was unveiled at the National Cattle Industry Convention the first week of February 2011 in Denver, to be debated and voted on. Here are six core strategies:

1. Improve domestic consumer preference for beef.

2. Capitalize on global growth opportunities.

3. Strengthen the image of beef and the industry.

4. Protect and enhance our freedom to operate.

5. Improve industry trust, openness, and relationships.

6. Position the U.S. cowherd for growth.

Why isn't number six at the top of the list? If the U.S. cowherd turns and starts to grow, all those other objectives would have to be working wouldn't they?

That's where I would put emphasis — working to put some cows back where they used to be on those marginal crop ground hills. Places like much of Missouri and southern Iowa, for instance, which has lost 1 million beef cows.

CRP Resurrected

We need a new CRP — Cow Resurrection Program.

There are details to be worked out, but it would work to put some incentive back into owning cows and growing pasture forages. It would especially open the door for some young men and women to make cowboying a career to be desired.

The task force gave it a good go with these proposed details for how to grow the cowherd:

• Secure resources to support public policy efforts to strengthen rural America and to encourage growth in the U.S. cowherd.

• Develop and invest in programs that attract talent and capital into the beef industry.

• Promote the intrinsic value of the farming and ranching lifestyle.

• Invest in educating current and prospective cow/calf producers to capitalize on opportunities and to improve their profitability and sustainability.

• Promote the adoption of technology to improve the overall efficiency and profitability of the beef industry (such as genetics and nutrition).

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