With an eye toward increasing participation without reducing standards, the national Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program is introducing a new set of guidelines for cow-calf operators.

The BQA Cow-Calf Assessment will feature three tiers to allow producers to enter the program while continuing to improve their proficiency in producing top-quality animals, says Ryan Ruppert, director of the voluntary program. The goal of the checkoff-funded effort is to help create a higher level of trust with consumers.

• The first tier serves as the entry level and a foundation for the other tiers. All cow-calf producers in the industry should be adhering to the principles contained in the first tier.

• The second tier is aimed at producers already doing a good job and looking to improve.

• The third will be for cow-calf producers adhering to a program that is a model for others. Those in this tier should have operations so thorough that they will be comfortable giving consumer tours of their operation.

Raising the bar

Hank Maxey of Maxey Farms, a commercial cow-calf operation in central Virginia, is a member of the committee developing the assessment. He says the new tiered approach creates “a way to get new people going with BQA techniques and practices,” allowing any producer to participate at their desired level.

Committee member Hugh Peltz, superintendent of operations for True Ranches in eastern Wyoming, says the feedlot and stocker guidelines, which preceded the new cow-calf assessment (in 2009 and 2010, respectively), were more process-oriented than the new set. The cow-calf assessment is “hopefully more comprehensive, sophisticated and evolutionary,” he says. “We made it as simple as we could. It allows producers to grow into it.”

It’s the simplicity that’s key, he stresses. “If you want to make it like a college textbook, you’re probably not going to get a lot of buy-in” from producers.

And it’s the buy-in from producers – even those with only a few animals – that designers hope to capture with the assessment. Although these smaller producers sometimes operate under “a different mindset,” Peltz says, “we need to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”

Committee member John Maas, DVM, University of California Extension, agrees that smaller operations “don’t necessarily have the same attention to detail” when it comes to things like vaccination programs, but many are increasingly progressive.

Tom Troxel, another committee member and a University of Arkansas animal science professor, doesn’t see herd size as that much of an issue, either. “It really comes down to the individual owner or manager,” he says. He points to the industry’s success in changing injection sites as evidence that even smaller producers accept their role in producing quality animals. “We’d still be having a problem if smaller operations hadn’t changed,” he says.

It’s about economics

Economics determine how businesses react in this country, and the beef industry is no different. Still, the same words keep coming up during interviews about the BQA program and how producers should respond to it: Do the right thing.

“You have to get everybody bought into it,” says Peltz, who believes anyone who has even one cow should consider BQA participation. “We’ve got to convince people that it’s just the right thing to do.”

Doing things right usually means dollars will follow, program leaders say. For instance, while Maxey says it’s sometimes difficult to get the value of BQA demonstrated monetarily, his operation’s certification in Virginia’s BQA program has provided animals with a “branded program” appearance with the white-tablecloth trade. It’s resulted in a 5-10¢/lb. premium for his steers.

Maas says he doesn’t see big bonuses for being BQA certified in his area, but as the protocols become more established throughout the industry, there might be a corresponding negative for those not involved. “If you don’t have BQA, you’re going to get a discount,” he says, while those going beyond BQA could generate bonuses from their efforts.

“It’s more about morals than dollars and cents,” Ruppert says. “Taking care of your animals and the environment demonstrates pride in your operation, and is just the right thing to do.”

The next step

Level of implementation will be key to the new cow-calf assessment’s success, say the producers who had a hand in developing the program.

“We’ll probably never have 100% acceptance with the voluntary program, but we need to keep it voluntary with incentives to encourage producers to do it right,” Maas says. Economics will be a huge driver.

“Using BQA principles, producers will see they don’t have to use (as many) drugs, don’t have to use as much feed,” he adds. “By paying attention to genetics, handling and the environment, they can improve their operations.”

Maas says smaller niche operators in California have adopted this mindset, listening to consumers and acting on their requests. “These kinds of programs move the entire industry forward,” he explains. “We need to elevate the playing field for everybody.”

Because BQA programs are conducted at the state level, it will be up to state cattlemen’s associations, Extension and others to get the word out. Leaders like Maas are looking for suggestions on how best to do that and improve on the process. “We’re hungry for great ideas that will work,” he says.

Ruppert says it’s important that all producers get involved, but recognizes some just won’t qualify. “We can’t dummy down the standards,” he says. “We have to raise the bar for producers.”

Sidebar: A successful start

A beef safety assurance program to address residue issues in feedlots preceded the current Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, which was initiated in the early 1990s. Its most notable success came after a 1991 audit showed a high percentage of injection-site lesions in slaughter cattle. Proper injection-site education through the BQA program reduced that problem to near zero.

This demonstrates that BQA education “has been a tremendous success,” says the University of Arkansas’ Tom Troxel. “The cattle industry corrected it on its own. Once producers saw what was happening, they were more than willing to change their practices. I see this (cow-calf assessment) as just another step in that education.”

Another National Beef Quality Audit due out next year will further gauge the industry’s quality progress. It will be the biggest and most comprehensive audit ever, covering every part of the beef chain.

For more information on BQA, visit www.bqa.org.