Predicting the eventual demise of the beef cattle business in the United States seems as foolish as assuming the business represents some sort of unalienable birthright.

Yet, the confidence and volume of those claiming positions in both camps continue to grow as the business seeks answers to old rules of thumb dashed asunder by a variety of business, supply and demand shocks over the past decade.

Chiseling with a broad blade, those convinced the business is unsustainable look at ongoing herd liquidation and continuing producer attrition. They earnestly wonder how the next generation or the one after it can survive in a business awash with stifling equity requirements, historic levels of price volatility, intrusive government regulations and activist groups hell-bent on the industry’s destruction.

As earnestly, those in the other camp consider the sweeping, untillable vastness of the U.S. and assume, since ruminants offer the only practical solution to utilizing the forage there, then cattle must always be part of the landscape. Besides, they reckon, higher prices and increased volatility make for more turns in the market, and more chances to turn a profit.

In between, plenty of folks are just plumb uneasy, proud of the responsibility and grateful for the opportunity to run cows, but wondering how to position their businesses for survival in an environment defined by so many uncontrollable variables.

No one has the answer, of course. But, maintaining economic viability during and after the current industry metamorphosis demands considering facts, both obvious and often overlooked.

That’s the aim of this special, though necessarily incomplete, industry focus.

It’s impossible to feed exponentially more people with exponentially less food while maintaining a current or improved quality of life.

This is the simple reality ignored or misunderstood by all of those folks wanting to ban various production technologies, claiming human and animal rights are equal and demanding locally grown agricultural commodities from the kind of operations that exist in imagination or along the subsidized margins of modern, intensive, sustainable agriculture.

 

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“The level of U.S. farm output in 2009 was 170 percent above its level in 1948, growing at an average annual rate of 1.63 percent,” say authors of Agricultural Productivity in the United States, published by USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Aggregate input use increased a mere 0.11 percent annually, so the positive growth in farm sector output was substantially due to productivity growth. This contrasts with a 3.6 percent annual output increase in the private nonfarm sector, with productivity growth accounting for a little more than a third of the economic growth.”

“In 1940, one person in U.S. agriculture could only feed 19 people. By 1960, one farmer could feed 26 people. Today, a farmer feeds 155 people worldwide,” say authors of Living in a World of Decreasing Resources & Increasing Regulation: How to Advance Animal Agriculture. This white paper revolves around information synthesized from the 2012 Annual Conference of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) in March this year.

“Advances in technology means fewer people are needed in agriculture, allowing individuals to pursue other professions. They become engineers, computer programmers, researchers who discover new cures, doctors who heal more children, teachers who educate today’s children, etc. If technology was frozen in the year 1955, it would require an additional 450 million acres—the total land mass of Texas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma—to produce the beef being produced today,” the white paper authors say. “In 1961, the United States population was close to 184 million people. In 2006, that number was greater than 300 million people. Relating those numbers back to 1960, if agriculture technology today was the same as 1960, the United States would either have to expand acres by 63 percent or decrease food consumption by 63 percent.”