Notwithstanding wonderments about the ultimate impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or the intentions of a loose-lipped USDA that seems bent on shooting itself and the industry in both feet, the record prices paid for feeder cattle and calves this summer can make it too easy to figure that all cow-calf operations are profitable, no matter how they are managed.

Fact is, according to the recently released summaries of the 2002 Census of Agriculture, there are 796,436 beef cattle operations, which is 11.5% fewer than in 1997; there are 4% fewer farms overall. Only operations with herd sizes of 100-199 head, 200-499 head and 500-999 head increased in number.

So, the number of beef-cattle enterprises continues to run south, even though some are growing larger. The point is that cow-calf enterprises aren't profitable enough to keep plenty from exiting the business.

Basic Technology Is Underused

There are any number of reasons for the continued decline, even as consumer beef demand increases. But, the real miracle of the cattle business may be that it continues to survive as well as it does. That's despite the paltry use many producers make of the most basic technology and management principles.

For example, at the 2003 Beef Improvement Federation annual meeting, Tom Field, a Colorado State University animal science professor, offered up a telling summary of beef enterprise characteristics gleaned from the most recent National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) reports:

  • 69% of cow-calf enterprises are secondary-income sources.

  • 49.1% of individual beef cattle enterprises, representing 64.7% of all calves, utilize individual calf ID.

  • 53.2% of enterprises record individual cow ID (69.8% of the cows).

  • 35% of calves and 30% of cows aren't marked with any form of ID.

  • 34% of beef cattle herds are routinely preg-checked.

  • 23% of beef cattle managers observe and record body condition score (BCS).

  • Approximately 20% of the cow herd is straightbred, 45% are F1s and about a third result from a three-breed cross.

  • Just more than 10% of beef-cattle enterprises utilize artificial insemination (AI) in any part of their herds.

  • Only about half of producers report establishing a breeding season of specific duration.

  • Nearly 80% of cattle enterprises rely on handwritten record-keeping systems.

“This points out that beef producers do not uniformly adopt even the most rudimentary technologies and best management practices,” Field says. He adds that the reasons for non-adoption range from cost, to lack of knowledge, to tradition.

Some might argue that these data, part of the NAHMS reports issued in 1997 and 1998, aren't current, but there's little to suggest that much has changed in seven years. And, yes, some of these aforementioned practices require extra cost, such as preg-checking, but others, such as utilizing BCS, only require a little time and brain sweat.

A Wide Range

Worse than the profit potential lost directly by ignoring such basic management strategies is the level of product variation such diverse management continues to support. Examples of such variation abound. Any given day at any given harvest facility, carcasses ranging between 400 and 1,100 lbs. are coming down the line, with a Grand Canyon-style gap in ribeye size to match.

These carcasses are the product of cattle ranging from belt-buckle tall to elephantine, and everything in between. This is the range heading to the feedlots where folks try to sort and manage on the average. It's akin to looking across a herd of cows ranging from frame score 4 to 10 and BCS of 3 to 8 and figuring out an average way to manage them for reproductive success.

Just consider the characteristics mentioned above. There's no management of calving season on half the cattle going to town; two-thirds are out of mamas that may or may not be keeping up with the demands of reproduction (preg-checking); at least a third are unknown as good and bad because they aren't identified; and 90% of beef-cattle operations completely ignore the potential of AI.

Of course, from a genetic standpoint, that may be just as well. Ironically, a strong case can be made that breeds collectively have busted their buttons to become more like one another. The muscle breeds have focused on marbling, while the marbling breeds have focused on muscle. It's increased the homogeneity between breeds when, in fact, the greater the variation the greater the opportunity for genetic progress.

In sum, there's probably at least as much opportunity left to embrace in increasing profit potential with basic management and technology than has already been exploited. A veteran cattle producer and industry observer may have summed it up best recently: “Everyone talks about value-based marketing and the need for the beef industry to move beyond a commodity industry. We've got to become a commodity business first, and we're not there yet.”