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Beef cattle herd discussion: An interesting and safe holiday party discussion topic

We are in the middle of the Holiday Season with many gatherings of family and friends to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.  The primary topics of conversation will involve family happenings and recent events.  Since most of the population is at least a generation removed from production agriculture, these gatherings gives us an opportunity to educate our friends and extended family about raising cattle with why we manage cattle a particular way and current trends in beef production.  Everyone will have some interest since the cost of beef has been noticed by most consumers.  The two current topics below are what I consider to be important messages and many of the statistics are taken from Cattle Fax Updates.  We have done more with fewer cows for several decades but we may be at the tipping point for the beef cow herd.

Technology is good and it will drive efficiency.  Beef today is not “Franken Food”

Look around any room and compare the advancement in electronic and cell phone technology to technological advancement in agriculture and beef cattle production.  The first computers were massive central processing units that filled rooms.  The technology advanced quickly into desk top units, then laptops, tablets and now smart phones.  Most consumers do not fear their phone.

Technology used in animal agriculture is not as threatening to the general population when discussed in this context.  Today the beef industry produces more beef with fewer animals.  The total cow herd has been on decline since the late 1970s; however, since 1980 more beef has been harvested each year from fewer animals.  

The smart phone is the result of many individual advancements and the improvement in beef production is a result of many factors.  When consumers realize this additive effect they are less apt to believe scare tactics of some anti-agriculture groups that want to portray modern food as a science project gone bad.  Explain the improvements in breeding programs, nutrition, animal health and management programs to produce a safe and wholesome product. Most cow calf producers can show a picture of a cow with a calf on pasture with pride and confidence that this is a true representation of their part of the beef industry.  Our next steps are to explain how that cow is the result of three generations of selective breeding for the traits THEY want and then explain how the calf will be feed a diet that is better balanced than their own diet and at times that calf may be fed antibiotics to keep it healthy and other feed additives for improved feed efficiency.  However, we need to remember to relate this back to what most consumers consider important: safe, affordable food and humane animal care.

The Beef Cow Herd is at a Tipping Point.  Doing Less and Costing More with Fewer Cows.

Beef will cost more due to declining supplies.  Beef production has been maintained since 2010 due to higher finish weights and increased cow culling.  The average per capita consumption of beef is 56 pounds per person, which requires a cow herd of at least 31 million head.  Due to two consecutive years of drought, the cow herd is expected to be near 29 million head in 2013.  With the high cost of gain in the feed lot, it is unrealistic to expect a continuation of feeding to larger weights unless beef prices increase.  There will be fewer heifers in the feedlot.  In recent years, the heifer placement in feedlots has been in the 35-39% range.  It will require 5-6 million heifers to grow the cow herd and this will further decrease the beef supply.

For this Holiday Season, you can proudly discuss the history of the beef industry and take credit for many of the efficiencies and the advancements in food safety.  Cost will be brought up and relating it back to the current cow herd situation is another way to help explain how using technology is a good thing.  This topic may be less controversial than debating the results of the election.