5 takeaways from a virtual cattle conference

Unusual times require unusual solutions. That was the reasoning for NCBA’s 2021 virtual Cattle Industry Convention, called Winter Reboot, that included two days of online speakers delivering industry updates and management tips. Here are five take-home points.

1. Good news on prices.

Every category of cattle prices – cow/calf, stocker, feedlot – should be better in 2021 compared with last year. Much of that is attributable to an expected improvement in the economy as COVID-19 vaccinations roll out, and businesses reopen. Kevin Good of the market outlook firm CattleFax predicted a $10-per-hundredweight bump in prices, with much of that coming in the second half of 2021. That would put fed cattle prices at about $119 for the year, topping at $126 in the fourth quarter. Feeder calves will range from $160 to $180, with tops in the early summer grass season. One bit of good news for beef, added Good, is that poultry supplies will level off.

“That’s a trend change,” Good says. “Poultry supplies have gone up 2% to 2.5% every year for the last several years, but not this year. Total meat supplies will be down about 3 pounds per capita, to 218 pounds. That’s price supportive.”

2. Pandemic lessons. 

Coronavirus exposed one big vulnerability of the beef industry: the concentration of beef slaughter and processing in a few big plants. Purdue University meat industry economist Jayson Lusk says that just 10 plants harvest 63% of all cattle in the country, and 15 hog plants handle 59% of the hogs. That presents a bottleneck in the meat industry between producers and consumers.

“At one point last summer, we were down 40% in meat packing volume from the year before,” Lusk says. “Each plant is very impactful. Maybe we should have more medium and small processors. We’d be more resilient in a crisis.”

Despite that, the beef industry weathered 2020 relatively well, Lusk indicates. “Wholesale beef demand is 15% higher right now than this time two years ago.”

While the restaurant business was decimated last year, he says food sales at grocery stores were up nearly 13%. Grocery store beef sales for at-home meals have done especially well.

3. Just change breeds. 

Cow/calf producers, particularly small and medium size ones, struggle with maintaining heterosis – crossbred vigor – in their cow herds. That’s because they tend to like a breed or color and stick with it in bull selection year after year. Darrh Bullock, a beef genetics Extension expert from the University of Kentucky, and John Genho of the beef genomics company Neogen, offered producers a couple of ways they can improve heterosis.

One is to buy composite bulls made up of at least two breeds to diversify the genetics of offspring, compared with a purebred bull. Beefmaster and Santa Gertrudis are examples. Ranches that follow this approach can, relatively easily, maintain at least 50% heterosis in the herd long-term, explains Genho, and even maintain a favored hide color of black or red.

“And if you just change your breed of bull every four years, you can get near 50% heterosis,” added Bullock. Sometimes, it may pay to buy F-1 replacement heifers from a heifer developer, Genho says. “She may cost more than those you grow yourself, but it could be worth it.”

4. Tech for pastures. 

Virginia rancher Jacob Gilley likes technology, but only if it actually helps him manage the farm more effectively. He highlighted several mobile apps he has on his phone that are simple and effective. One is called GPS Fields Area Measure, a free app from Google. It lets you walk the boundary of a pasture, and it will give you exact distances, and the exact acreage of the field.

“A lot of times we don’t know the exact numbers,” Gilley says. “This app can help you order inputs such as fertilizer or seed, purchase fence supplies, or compute crop yields.”

He also likes Good Earth Pro (free) for creating pasture and field maps. It even works better for him on the larger screen desktop site, rather than the mobile app. One other grazing app he really likes is Graze OK (free from Oklahoma State) for estimating forage availability in pastures.

5. Biden: So far, so good. 

Make no mistake, the cattle industry leans hard right politically. But cattle industry representatives in Washington, D.C., think there’s reason for optimism in working with Biden administrators. Ethan Lane, the NCBA’s government affairs director, says early indicators are that they are in the friend-making business.

“They are trying hard to reach out and engage with us,” Lane says. “We will have a seat at the table with them. Some people think Biden’s executive actions will wipe out four years of regulatory gains under the previous administration, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Take a deep breath and relax.”

Colin Woodall, the CEO of NCBA, acknowledged that many ranchers may be skeptical of Biden, but encouraged them to give him a chance. “The reception we’ve had so far has been far better than in the early days of the Obama administration,” he says. “Biden people see agriculture not as the problem, but rather the solution to such things as sustainability and climate change. They’ve made it clear we won’t get there without cattle production.”

Woodall praised the new chairman of the House agriculture committee, David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia. “He always asks us, ‘What can I do for my cattle friends?’”  Woodall says. “The extremes in either party typically don’t help agriculture. It’s in the middle.”  

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