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Where's The Beef?

Cowboys and cowgirls from across the country are in Phoenix, Arizona, this week for their annual roundup: the Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show. Here are a few highlights from the Cattle College and other events.

We Have the Meats!

That’s Arby’s in-your-face slogan, and it plays well with the beef lovers here. Jim Taylor, the Arby’s Restaurant Group chief marketing officer, came to share some of the story behind the quick-serve chain and to thank beef producers for the raw material they produce.

“We sell 130 million pounds of beef a year through our 3,300 stores,” he says. “If we run out of beef, well, I’m out of a job!” Rather than no-meat Mondays, a tactic that some in the less-meat movement advocate, Taylor tells the cheering crowd he’s pushing for double-beef Mondays. 

Arby’s started in Ohio in the 1960s when some hamburgers sold for as little as 10 cents each. Arby’s shaved beef sandwiches sold for 60 cents. You could watch the whole-muscle beef slicer work right in front of you. 

“We’re still one of the most expensive sandwiches, so we have to be better than the burger guys,” says Taylor.

The average customer at Arby’s spends $3 more than at other quick-serve drive-thrus.

“We aren’t trying to win on the basis of fast time or price,” Taylor says. “We want to win on the experience.” The slogan they currently use in TV advertisements, “We Have the Meats!” works, he continues. Average volume per store in the last five years is up 25%, more than any of the other quick-serve restaurants.

One Arby’s sandwich, the Meat Mountain, is 16 ounces of sliced beef on a giant roll! “Beef is our heart and soul, and will remain that way,” says Taylor to this choir.

Are We Making Progress?

Texas A&M beef cattle specialist Gary Smith looked back at a cattle industry “white paper” written more than 25 ago about industry inefficiencies that needed to be fixed. Smith questions whether the industry is making progress.

The biggest inefficiencies from 1991 were excess fat, inefficient reproduction, death loss, and shrink/waste in the beef retail system. Here’s what he says about progress.

Excess fat: It is defined as anything over ¼ inch of outer fat cover on a beef carcass. “We haven’t really improved this,” Smith says. “It continues to cost us in terms of reduced feed efficiency and the costs of trimming it off.”

Reproductive efficiency: In 1991, it was estimated that 80% of all the beef cows and heifers in the country actually weaned a calf every year. The rest either didn’t breed or the calf died. 

Smith polled 16 beef industry experts from across the country on today’s status. In their collective judgement that number is now up to 85%, up 5% but still far short of the 95% goal. Two things could get us closer to that level, says Smith: Genetic selection for higher fertility and more crossbreeding in commercial cow herds.

Death loss: The 1991 report said that 6.5% of calves that were born alive died before market weight. That number has actually gotten worse, say the experts that Smith polled. It’s now 7.6%. Some of the things that contribute to that are weak calf syndrome, slow births and large birth weights, drought and nutrition issues, and BRD or pneumonia.

Retail shrink: It’s hard to get a good handle on this, says Smith. In 1991, it was estimated that 6% of beef was lost at retail because of shrink or “out-of-date” issues. He guesses it may be less today because the retail industry has changed its approach, now using more case-ready meat products from packing plants.

Is she sick or under-nourished?

Jeff Hall, a Utah State University cattle nutrition expert, says a lot of cow health problems are actually an indirect result of poor nutrition, particularly vitamin and mineral deficiencies. For instance, when he does liver biopsies on cows, it’s not unusual to find 70% of them are deficient in copper, selenium, or vitamins A and E. 

Those are higher numbers than 30 years ago, he says, partly because farms and ranches now have higher production numbers through increased calving rates and faster growth. “We’re cranking out 50% more pounds of cattle, and it takes more nutrition to do that,” Hall says, and some ranches aren’t providing it.

He says producers need to get on a good mineral supplementation program, particularly around calving time. Cows pass minerals from their own reserves to their fetal calf in order to give the calf a head start at birth. If the cow is low on minerals, then her calf likely will be, too. 

“Maternal vitamin and mineral deficiencies are associated with repeat breeders, poor conception, and lameness,” Hall says. “Copper, selenium, zinc, and vitamin E are all required for normal immunity. With deficiencies in the cow, you get direct and indirect compromises in the calf, including the results of poor quality colostrum.”

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