Beef cattle’s biological and physiological systems are beginning to show strain. There are the visible hints, such as ambulatory problems in late-day and finished cattle.

In pastures and feedyards, Field sees more foot and leg problems, and abnormalities like scissor claw that he had never seen before. He adds that similar issues occur in the swine and poultry industries.

There’s also the less obvious reality of stagnant phenotypic production despite increased genetic potential and management opportunity.

“People don’t want to hear it, but I can find no credible evidence suggesting the average weaning weight per calf has increased in this country for the last 10 years,” said Stan Bevers, a Texas AgriLife Extension agricultural economist. That was in the January 2012's “U.S. Beef Cow Productivity Is Stagnant.”

Bevers ran Southwest SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis) numbers to get averages for the periods of 1991-1999 and 2005-2009. From the first period of time to the latter one, average weaning weight declined 36 lbs., average calving rate declined 1.3%, and average pounds weaned per cow exposed — a product of the other two measures — declined 25 lbs.

“What I worry about is that we haven’t made dramatic improvements in reproduction in any species without increasing inputs,” Field says. “Our production has required us to put more into the system. That works as long as inputs are cheap, but what happens when interest rates increase to 10%-15%?”

 

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What happens when corn prices increase from an historic average of $2-$2.50/bu. to more than $7/bu.?

The answer discovered in recent years is that increased production couldn’t overcome the increase in production costs. Even without considering biological or physiological constraints, continuous increases in per-animal production, in the name of sustainability, proved to be economically unsustainable.

At some point, the inherent system prevents additional input from yielding enough extra output to make the additional input worthwhile.

“From a pure profit perspective, at what point in time does one more pound of production not return value?” Field wonders.