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BIF conference focuses on cow herd, sustainability

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Jul 2, 2015

This year’s Beef Improvement Federation meeting was held in Biloxi, MS, early last month. As always, it was an upbeat meeting that introduced producers to the latest technology and trends.

Sustainability was the first big topic at this year’s BIF meeting. All speakers agreed that sustainability was a combination of environment, social concerns and profitability (economics). While society tends to focus on environmental concerns when it comes to the cattle and beef industries, economics probably has the biggest impact on producers’ sustainability, with the ultimate symbol of sustainability being able to pass a cattle business down from one generation to the next.

Dr. Sara Place of the Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal Science noted that it took civilization from 10,000 BC to 1804 AD for the earth’s population to reach one billion people, but projections have it reaching nine billion in the year 2045. Beef production will be an important part of feeding this burgeoning population as the majority of the world’s agricultural land is only suited to grazing.

Basically, photosynthesis produces cellulose on this land with cattle serving as a “bioreactor” to convert cellulose into high quality food for humans in the form of beef. It was noted that since 2005, the industry—through efficiency—has produced the same amount of beef on 33 percent less land, with 30 percent fewer cattle.

Environmentalists and animal rights groups focus on beef production, generally putting it in a negative light. It is important that the beef industry tell its story of sustainability and continuous improvement.

It was noted at the conference that movies like Conspiracy—which got its data from the UN’s report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”—refer to deforestation and other practices for the production of cattle that applies to areas like South America and Southeast Asia, and does not apply to the U.S. In fact, the use of pasture and byproduct feeds to produce meat is a success story that only ruminants can perform.

Greenhouse gases and water usage are often also a focal point of environmentalists and animal rights groups, but it was noted by Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Sustainability Researcher with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), that since 2005, the industry has decreased emissions by 10 percent, water usage by 3 percent and land use by 33 percent. Her thesis was that adoption of new technologies will be the key to continuous improvement in sustainability, and profitable breeding objectives and selection indexes will be important components to this improvement. Speakers emphasized that sustainability is a journey and not a destination.

The second major topic of the conference was restocking the nation’s cow herd. It was noted by John Paterson, NCBA Executive Director of Education, that the decline in cow numbers was not just a function of drought but a combination of drought, high feed prices, high operating costs, aging producer demographics, competition with crop production with more income potential, and the price of cull cows.

The good news is the average age in the nation’s cow herd is younger than it has ever been and beef demand is on the rise after many years of decline.

The industry is in a period of historic profitability and has unused capacity in both the feed yard and packing segments. The cow herd is now in an expansion phase that is occurring faster than expected. Different studies yielded varying results on how long the expansion phase will continue and how big the cow herd will become but there was agreement that this coming year will see similar prices to last year followed by prices leveling off and slowly retracting.

In terms of expansion, Lee Schultz, Associate Professor of Economics at Iowa State University, stated that one of the keys to future profitability will be the number of live calves produced, and improvement in reproduction is gained through both management and genetics to improve pounds of calves weaned rather than culling of low performing cows.

In a panel discussion, Ken Stewart, Manager of Rollins Ranches, emphasized that cattle must first and foremost be adapted to the environment in which they are managed before looking at improving other traits. Schultz added that the decision to raise or buy replacements is multifaceted. In the most simplistic terms, replacements should be raised if the cost of raising them is lower than purchasing them, with the opposite being true if replacements can be bought at a lower cost than raising them. It was noted that other factors needed to be added into the equation including adaptability and intrinsic genetic value.

Dr. John Riley, Assistant Extension Professor of Agricultural Economics at Mississippi State University, stated that profitability is largely independent of cow herd size but instead lower cost of production is most highly correlated with profitability. In his view costs are best managed through genetics, nutrition, infrastructure and labor, but warned that production costs should not be too low as to introduce too much risk.

Next year’s Beef Improvement Federation conference will be held in Manhattan, KS, June 14-17. Producers are encouraged to attend. — Dr. Bob Hough

(Dr. Bob Hough has served as the Executive Vice President of the Red Angus Association of American and more recently as Executive Vice President of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semi-retired.)

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