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10 things you can learn at the NCBA Cattle Industry Convention

The annual meeting of America’s cattle industry is in San Antonio this week, with 10,000 attendees and over 300 commercial exhibitors. Here are 10 takeaways from the first day's activities at the NCBA Cattle Industry Convention.

1. Beef producers need to do a better job of telling their story. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is a regular before this friendly crowd. He came again to remind beef producers they need to do a better job of telling their own story of productivity. He used this example: In France, consumers spend 13% of their income on food. In the U.S., that number is just 6%. “If you spread that difference over our entire population, U.S. farmers are giving back to our consumers $830 billion a year, compared to France,” said the Secretary. “Agriculture has helped create an affluence that lets consumers spend that money somewhere else. It seems like we get blamed for a lot of things in agriculture,” he continued. “People like to talk about how much farmers get. We need to talk about how much they give.”

2. The coronavirus could affect new trade deal. When told that China may request a delay in implementing Phase One of the new trade deal with the U.S. due to the coronavirus crisis, the Secretary said, “Haven’t heard that. But I would expect us to be very understanding on this issue. Our hope is to have the Phase One done by the end of this year. And we also hope that the coronavirus threat will be resolved soon.” He added that it is too soon to anticipate or speculate on a fourth round of trade-related payments to farmers later this year, or next.

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3. Thank goodness for the Department of Agriculture. It might be the one department of the federal government that still talks across the aisle. When asked if he thinks agriculture is as bipartisan as ever on Capitol Hill – despite the political rancor elsewhere – Secretary Perdue said yes, that’s absolutely still true. “We passed the farm bill in a bipartisan way. I think everyone recognizes the productivity of our farmers and ranchers, and that we are all working for the common good,” he said. “What could other departments learn from us? Boy, I have no idea. They don’t have the constituents that USDA has.”

4. Is the beef industry sustainable? That seems to be the question of the week at Cattle Convention. Of course, beef producers answer, Yes!” But they look for ammunition to prove the point. Tryon Wickersham, a Texas A&M animal scientist who specializes in forage utilization and co-product usage, gave them some. “We in the cattle business take resources that you and I can’t eat (like grass and distillers’ grains), and turn them into a resource (beef),” he said. “Of course we understand that, but people outside of agriculture don’t.” Cows and other ruminants have a special place in that issue because they can utilize sources of biomass that other meat-producing animals can’t, Wickersham added. Wickersham went on to show that corn fed to cattle can provide 4.6 times the amino acid requirements of humans, compared with eating the grain directly.

5. Be a part of the sustainability effort. Another speaker at the Cattlemen’s College, the educational kickoff event of Cattle Convention, was Wayne Morgan from a Georgia-based company called Golden States Food. They provide all sorts of food items to restaurants and food retailers, including beef to McDonalds and small syrup packages to pancake chains. Their protein division cranks out 400,000 hamburger patties an hour all day long! Said Morgan to the beef ranchers, “Stop wincing at the word sustainability. Be a part of the effort to show the world how you do it. You are the most efficient beef producers in the world, producing more beef on fewer resources. But don’t forget, others are working hard to catch up with you.”

6. Texas and other parts of Southwest cattle country are in a drought – again. One rancher said he’s had 7 inches of rain in the entire last year. Two grazing experts from the Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma, Hugh Aljoe and Jeff Goodwin, gave Cattlemen’s College attendees some advice on a better way to prepare for droughts. “Figure out how many cows your ranch should be able to handle in normal conditions,” Goodwin said. “Stock your ranch at about 80% of that number. Then, rather than sell the calves at weaning, start a stocker program where you keep the calves to graze your extra grass.” There are several advantages to this, explained Aljoe. For one, you retain ownership longer and capitalize on your good genetics. “But if you get into a drought situation, you can sell all or some of the stocker animals, rather than cows, to reduce numbers,” he said.

7. If you are short of good feed to get your cows through the winter, do some serious pencil-pushing to determine the best way to supplement them. That was the message from University of Missouri cattle nutrition expert Eric Bailey. He said cows that are getting low-quality hay may need to be supplemented with about one extra pound of protein per day. You usually have several choices for how to do that, and he compared them based on some recent real prices. Using a commercial protein tub could cost $1.33 per cow per day. Cubes: 70¢. Mature alfalfa hay: 47¢. Distillers’ grains: 31¢. But, he said, you have to do your own math using your local prices and availability.

8. Eric Bailey also encouraged producers to rethink the timing of their calving season. Lots of Missouri cattlemen like to calve in February, but that really doesn’t let a cow’s peak nutrition needs and forage production match up. If a cow calves in February, her peak needs are in March – before spring grass. Yet, if you delay calving to April, her peak nutrition needs are in May, and that’s far better timing for good grass. Even bigger, though, could be her rebreeding. With delayed calving, she’s more likely in her best condition at breeding season in June or July. Bailey also encouraged producers to consider fall calving. While those calves might be a little lighter at weaning, they actually bring more dollars because they are marketed during the highest average markets of the year.

9. If a cow fails to breed or maintain pregnancy, she’s to blame, right? Maybe not, said Ky Pohler, a Texas A&M University animal scientist. He and other researchers are finding that bulls may play a bigger role in pregnancy rates than previously thought. In one South American test among Angus bulls, one bull had a 6% loss of pregnancies in the cows he bred, vs. another bull that had 37% loss. “There’s some evidence now that the male plays a role in placenta development and attachment,” said Pohler. “And the cow plays a bigger role in embryo development.”

10. Jordan Thomas, a beef reproduction specialist from the University of Missouri, talked to beef producers about the use of “sexed” semen. That’s bull A.I. semen that has been sorted by X (female) and Y (male) chromosomes, to determine if the calf will be a bull or heifer. These technologies are about 90% successful at sorting semen and determining sex of the offspring. It’s available on most A.I. bulls for a cost of $10 to $30 above the normal per-unit cost of the semen. Pregnancy rates with sexed semen are typically a few percentage points below A.I. with non-sexed semen. “What a producer has to determine is if the technology can be profitable for them,” said Thomas. “Can you market heifers better than steers? Is there an economy of scale if you can get a whole potload of steers that are worth more? You would have to run your own numbers on these questions.”

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