Even if the only change you like is the kind jangling in your pocket, you have to appreciate what technology has enabled the beef industry to accomplish over the past 50 years.

Compared to 1955:

  • Beef production per head increased more than 80%.

  • Total beef production doubled from 13.2 billion lbs. to 27 billion lbs., with a herd size almost identical to that of 1955.

  • Consumer cost per pound of beef decreased 26%, adjusted for inflation.

  • Producing the same tonnage of beef today with 1955 technology would require 80% more cows, which would need an additional 165 million acres of land. That's roughly equivalent to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.

  • Since 1955, cattle have grown in actual value to producers, with the premium for feeders relative to feds more than doubling.

Technology's big impact

These are a few bottom-line findings of a study released by the Growth Enhancement Information Technology Team last summer. Examining the impact of pharmaceutical technology on the beef industry, Rod Preston, Texas Tech University Thornton Professor Emeritus, and Tom Elam, an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, provided the third-party analysis and interpretation.

“In 2004, we have a more plentiful, less expensive and higher quality beef supply than we did in 1955,” the researchers say. “That we have managed to simultaneously increase efficiency, quality and production, while reducing the real price of beef, is a testament to the remarkable work of thousands of men and women involved in this industry over the past 50 years.

“As a result of their efforts, the industry produces more and higher quality beef than it would have had these productivity increases not occurred… The primary benefits of increased productivity have accrued to the cattle industry and to U.S. beef consumers,” the report says.

Technology's most significant impact on U.S. beef production has been to increase grain-fed beef production and indirectly decrease non-fed beef production.

“Our ability to feed cattle high-grain diets, the result of a synergistic combination of a number of technologies, has been the most significant source of increased beef productivity, efficiency and product quality over the past 50 years,” they write.

With that in mind, the study focuses on the role of pharmaceutical technology — think in terms of antibiotics, implants, ionophores and the like — along with advancements in beef and dairy genetics, nutrition and grain yields.

For instance, the researchers cite pharmaceutical technology with improving feed conversion 23% and average daily gain 59% in the feedlot. It also helped bump weaning weight by 25%.

Meanwhile, beef genetics have served up larger-frame cattle that can consume more and convert better, along with more gains through crossbreeding.

But, according to the study, improved dairy genetics are the real story. Dramatic increases in milk production made possible by genetic selection meant the need for fewer dairy cows, which opened up more land for beef cows. And, producing a higher percentage of beef calves rather than dairy equates to more beef production.

Nutritional management in the cow-calf pasture — including a keener understanding of the role micronutrients play — and in the stocker/backgrounding phase raised cattle's ability to express their genetic potential for performance once in the feedlot.

Crop technology drives progress

As for grain, corn yield quadrupled in the past 50 years, becoming more cost-efficient for use in growing and finishing cattle. Had corn prices of the mid 1950s simply increased with inflation, prices today would be more than $9/bushel.

No single technology can account for the overall productivity increase, the researchers say. Rather, the production system evolved around the entire set of technologies, which molded it into its current form.

Though the grass often seems greener on yesterday's side of the fence, productivity and efficiency gains provided by these kinds of technologies are tough to wish away, and even tougher to ignore.

“Through a combination of research, technology development and innovation, the U.S. beef industry has increased the productivity of its herd by over 80% in the last 50 years,” the researchers say. “Pharmaceutical technology has been the most important single technology directly applied in the production of beef.”

Genetics, nutrition, and pasture, stocker and feedlot management have also played important roles, they continue.

“Increases in crop yields and reduction in the real price of grains have been pivotal in the growth of the feedlot industry. The overall impact has been to help keep beef competitive in cost and quality in the consumer's market basket.”