The beef and cattle business is often cited — to its benefit and sometimes its disadvantage — as one cloaked in tradition. Belying that characterization, however, is the dynamism that's reworked the industry virtually overnight in many respects.

From an industry that just a few short years ago operated as the last of the great commodity markets, it's moving to one increasingly based on value. Where everything from light bulbs to toilet paper has long carried brands in the grocery store (because consumers wouldn't buy generics), beef until just shortly was still largely a commodity buy at retail.

The explosive growth — and short-term demise — of export markets, the threats of foreign-animal disease, climate and energy concerns, activism, the drive to wring more value and profit from invested dollars — all have served to rework the way U.S. beef producers do business today.

At least once each year, BEEF editorial staff sits down for a hearty, internal, give-and-take look at developing trends and what they mean to the U.S. beef industry. We use those discussions and their results in formulating our editorial coverage for the coming year. The aim is to keep ahead of the needs and information we feel readers will have to, and want to, know in formulating and tweaking their operational plans. Here are a few of the trends and concerns from our most recent deliberations:

  • Increasing fuel and freight costs and their effect on production efficiency, operational expenses and overall profitability.

  • The rise of ethanol/biodiesel production and what it portends for the availability and competition for feedstuffs.

  • The coming market-driven surge in animal documentation and verification for process, source and age of animals, and its effects on operational and industry competitiveness.

  • The ongoing battle to cement science as the underpinning of trade negotiations.

  • USDA's seeming decline in credibility among various audiences and what it portends for the advancement of important industry issues and infrastructure such as the development of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

  • The ongoing organizational battle within the industry and the divisiveness it's created in industry voice and effectiveness.

  • Continued consolidation within the industry — among genetic providers, feedlots, larger commercial cow-calf operational size.

  • Public lands and the drive to retain the multiple-use concept reconfirmed under the current federal administration.

  • The growth of coordinated animal health and/or nutrition programs.

  • Politics — 2007 farm bill, next month's mid-term elections, and the 2008 presidential elections.

  • Increased need for risk management in a beef-industry rife with increased volatility.

  • The ongoing generational transfer of wealth in the U.S. The surge of outside dollars for ag land continues (see page 32). Will cattle still be on the ground with recreation the prime motivator, and what does an aging ranch population bode for the business?

  • Product differentiation and the rise of natural and organic markets.

  • Antibiotics usage and regulations. Will the industry be forced to operate without them?

  • Continuing education/research. Where will the teaching tools for the current and following generations of folks on the land come from, if land-grant system shrinkage continues?

To what extent these issues will influence the U.S. industry's fortunes in the coming year is unknown, but that they'll have an effect is a given. It's what keeps practitioners in this business on their toes, and this business interesting.