So what does this mean for cow-calf producers? Tackling injection sites and routes of administration is a tangible, solvable problem; food safety, flavor and tenderness is something else altogether.

“I think one of the things we have a tendency to say at the production level is that we’re so far removed that we don’t need to assume or take on accountability for this product,” says Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I think what we’re learning is, that is in fact our job.”

It starts at the very beginning with the seedstock operator all the way up to the person who sells the final product to the consumer, he says. “Everyone shares a piece of the accountability for how well their product performs. And when the product performs well and demand goes up, we all go with it; we all do better because demand is rising. And so I think, at the end of the day, we need take a hard look at every decision we make as participants of this supply chain.”

To do that, he says cow-calf producers need to ask themselves three questions:

• Are the decisions I’m about to make going to impact the eating quality of the product that’s going to be delivered from this animal? And if it is going to negatively impact it, I need to have very clear reasons why I’m going to make that decision.

• Is what I’m about to do going to reflect positively on the integrity of the product and on the integrity of my industry?

• Is what I’m about to do something I’m going to be proud to include in the beef story?

The bottom line, Field says, is to think about the things you do on your ranch as if you had five minutes sitting next to somebody on an airplane. Could you explain to them why we do what we do?

Field describes how they addressed this issue on his family ranch in Western Colorado. “As we went through that process, one of the things I struggled with is that I had a hard time explaining dehorning. There was no advantage I could come up with to having horns.”

So they went from a herd that 30 years ago did 100% dehorning at branding time, to one where less than 2% are dehorned today; they did it by breeding the horns out.

“That’s a lot easier for me to brag about. I can say to people that there was a challenge because horns were creating bruising. We don’t have that now because of genetics. And people will smile because they know you’re thoughtful and you picked the things you could do something about and you were intentional. And that buys you a lot of good will with the consumer. I think that’s the key to think about,” Field says.

In the 2011 NBQA, three pillars of beef chain success rose to the top. Food safety is the number one challenge facing cattlemen. It’s followed by eating satisfaction, defined as flavor; and by consumers’ desire to know how and where cattle were raised.

So the challenge for cattlemen, Field says, is this: Can we get it right and can we tell our story to consumers? “We only have two options. Either we get it right and we tell consumers that, or we see the cowherd continue to shrink.”

To read an executive summary of the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit at www.bqa.org/audit.aspx.