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Will beef survive in new agriculture?

When the nations beef producers gather this week in Nashville for the 2012 Cattle Industry Convention (, they’ll have plenty of big issues to talk about. It’s an election year, and a new farm bill year. Here are the policy items on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association priority list:

  • Death Tax: They’re against it. NCBA wants it eliminated on estates up to $10 million.

  • Farm Dust Regulation: Against that one, too.

  • Equal Access to Justice Act: Against. Cattlemen say it lets radical environmentalists to target ranchers over grazing of public lands.

  • 2012 Farm Bill: Cattlemen want it smaller, less livestock provisions, more rights to manage their own resources.

  • Transportation: More uniformity across states; more weight, length, and capacity of stock trailers.

But what about the gorilla?

While all of those may be worthy issues, the 800-pound gorilla in the cattle barn is this one: Is there a place for the cattle industry in the new 21st-century energy-based agriculture? Is the slide in cattle numbers and beef producers irreversible? Will we continue to bleed pasture acres until the only cattlemen left produce for Asian consumers?

The statistics are sobering. Every year, the U.S. cattle inventory declines. We’re at about 90 million head now, and when new government statistics are released during the Cattle Convention, they will likely show that cattle depopulation has intensified, thanks to the devastating drought in the South.

We’ve lost about a third of all cattle producers in the last 20 years, mostly small and medium size cow and stocker operators in the Midwest and Plains. New corn acres that we somehow find every year used to be pastures and hay fields.

Per capita beef consumption is down about 35% from its peak. Soon, pork will pass it. Chicken has a 30-pound lead on both.

Meanwhile, exports of beef surge, mostly to Japan and other Asian destinations, up 21% last year. Ten percent of our beef is now eaten by a foreigner.

Best prices ever!

Prices are very good for beef producers who have survived to this point. In fact, all-time good. Slaughter steers are worth a record $1.30 a pound live now, and some light feeder calves have hit $2 a pound. Four-hundred-pound calves are worth $800! It’s the best of times – if you still have the cows!

Unfortunately, too few producers do. Will the cattlemen in Nashville begin to address the core issues that will determine if anyone raises cattle in the U.S. 30 years from now? Issues like, farm policy that encourages enterprise diversification or rotation? Research into cheaper forage-based feedlot rations? Beef products more adapted to fast food and take-out?

Only time and really good leadership will tell.

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