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Mixed Attitudes at Cattle Industry Convention

San Diego, California, took on the title of Cowtown U.S.A. this week when the annual Cattle Industry Convention set up shop at the Convention Center. Thousands of cattle ranchers and feedlot operators came to look for production ideas and new products to bolster the efficiency of their herds.

It’s a mixed bag of attitudes from producers about the health of the cattle industry today. Cow/calf producers have seen calf prices drop from the record levels of a year ago, but they are still solidly in the black; 500-pound steer calves are about $2.20 per pound today. “It’s the second best market in history,” says calf producer Dan McCarty of eastern Colorado. “It just doesn’t feel as good as last year when we had the best market ever.”

At the other end of the spectrum are the stocker and feedlot operators. They operate almost exclusively on margins — buying on one market and hoping to add weight and sell on a higher market. That’s been a tough formula to follow over the last few months with generally declining cattle prices in the face of higher overall meat supplies. Tyler Cox, a cow/calf and stocker operator from Washington state, says, “I’m upside down by $500 on some calves I bought last summer. I thought I was pretty smart then, but not so much today.” 

The first day of Cattle Convention is highlighted by the annual Cattlemen’s College, a multitrack seminar on all things cattle. Keynoter was Robb Fraley, Monsanto VP of technology development Robb Fraley. He’s been at the forefront of Monsanto’s GMO crops development since the 1980s.

Genetically modified crops and cattle are joined at the hip, he tells the beef producers. “Over 85% of soybeans are processed and the soybean meal that comes out of that is almost exclusively used in animal feed,” he says. “To feed the one-third additional cattle we need to add to the U.S. herd by the year 2050, we’ll need another 1 billion bushels of corn, the equivalent of another Illinois.”

In support of ag biotechnology and GMO crops, Fraley says we need to remember that only two major crops grown commercially today actually originated in North America: sunflowers and strawberries. “Corn originated in Mexico, and soybeans in China,” he says. “We modified them genetically to grow here. Over hundreds of years, we’ve made phenomenal changes in crops.”

Also in support of GMOs, Fraley says they are grown in at least 30 countries with regulatory reviews from at least 70 countries. “I think they have been studied more than any food product ever,” says Fraley, “and there has never been any detection of the GMO in meat or milk. Their performance as feed is as good or even better than non-GMO feed, with not one single food or feed safety issue reported. I’d say that’s a pretty good track record.”

Next up for ag biotechnology, says Fraley: Tools to understand and improve soil health. Monsanto scientists are studying the 2,000 microbes that exist in soils and live on the roots to protect or help plants. “We studied some last year that can improve yields up to 5%,” he says.

Fraley points to statistics indicating that while 37% of the general public believes GMO food crops are safe for consumers, over 90% of scientists believe they’re safe. “We’ve done a lousy job of communicating to the public the importance of science in food production,” he says. “And I mean both Monsanto and agriculture in general. Twenty years ago when we introduced GMO crops, we didn’t take the time to do it, and social media filled that void. Now, we need to fix that. We need to listen, engage, and communicate in the ways that people want, including social media.”

On a similar topic, University of California-Davis animal geneticist Allison Van Eenannaam talked about genetic modification in the animals themselves. She prefers the term genetic engineering, or GE, and the only GE animal that has been approved is AquaAdvantage salmon, granted FDA approval last November. That salmon has been engineered to grow faster on less feed. “It can get to market in 16 to 18 months, rather than the normal 30 months, on 20% less feed,” says Van Eenannaam. 

That salmon was actually developed 25 years ago, and has been fighting its way through the regulatory process ever since, she says, at a cost of at least $85 million, and with lawsuits now threatening to stop it from proceeding commercially. “All the genetic engineering was done 25 years ago, and it’s just been perpetuating from generation to generation since then,” she says. “To me, it’s just animal breeding.”

She says the newest wave of animal genetic engineering involves a gene editing process sometimes called knock-out technology. With this, a single gene is modified (or knocked out) to change the way an animal performs. It could add extra muscling to cattle, or make them hornless, or add disease resistance. While gene manipulation in animals is controversial to some, Van Eenannaam questions whether gene editing is really the same as genetic engineering, where a whole gene from one species is added to another, as in plant breeding. “It’s estimated we lose about 20% of animal production to disease, so what if these new technologies can change that, and maybe provide an alternative to antibiotics?” she asks.

She has become very active in being a spokesperson to the general public about agricultural science and technology. “We’ve failed at this in many respects, so what I try to do is to have a discussion with those on the other side,” she says. “It’s not always about the science with them, it’s more about their trust. The public wants to know if you are believable, or bought off by someone. I try to get their trust.”

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