At press time, the U.S. beef industry was anxiously awaiting the results of an imminent meeting by a subcommittee of Japan's Food Safety Commission. It was thought the committee, which is considering whether to reopen the Japanese market to U.S. beef, is close to a decision.

Whenever that re-establishment of trade comes, there should be early opportunity for cow-calf producers of foresight to garner some significant extra money, industry sources say.

After clearing more hoops than Flipper the dolphin, the agreement hammered out by U.S. and Japan negotiators last spring calls for the U.S. to export to Japan only beef products from cattle 20 months of age and younger. The age on those cattle must be verified, and therein lays the opportunity for U.S. producers with foresight and initiative.

“When Japan opens, there won't be enough age-verified cattle in the pipeline to supply it,” says Jackie Moore, co-owner (along with Steve Owens) of Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Joplin, MO. “When we get that Japanese market back, there will be some money to be made.”

Incidentally, JRS marketed more than 200,000 process-verified cattle through its regular Value-Added Sales of the past year.

Heather Donley, director of quality assurance for Beef Marketing Group (BMG), recently told Missouri cow-calf producers: “As long as you keep records on your cattle — records that verify first and last birth date information — you can take part in the Japan program.”

BMG is a 13-feedlot cooperative of Nebraska and Kansas operators who banded in 1987 to better compete against the larger feedlots. Together, the group represents the sixth largest feeding entity in the U.S., marketing a total of 500,000 head annually.

Japan is the largest export market for U.S. food and agricultural products. In 2003, before Japan enacted its ban on U.S. beef exports, the island nation was the destination for $1.4 billion in beef and beef variety meats to Japan.

Donley says the U.S. beef-export market represents just 8% of total U.S. production, but 10% of the value. But, it takes 80% of the fed-cattle marketings to produce for that foreign market because much of those exports consist of the variety meat and offal products highly prized by foreign consumers.

“We need to fill that pipeline to be ready for the Japanese market when it opens,” she says.

Donley (785/472-3533 and hdonley@beefmarketinggroup.com) lists these requirements for cow-calf producers to participate in the age-verified Japanese market:

  • Documented and filed calving records — these can consist of records in a calving book, calendar notations, sale-barn cards, etc. But, the records must be written down, and available for audit. Affidavits won't qualify.

  • A unique animal ID by either individual or group — brands, ear tags, etc.

  • Transfer data — information on where they changed hands.

  • A defined calving season. As the age on a group of cattle not identified individually, the age for the group is determined by the first-born calf in the calving season.

  • Those records must be maintained for three years.

With these basics, a producer can participate in an age-verified program. From there, Cara Gerken of IMI (IMI) Global, Inc. (www.imiglobal.com), says producers can ship their cattle to the firms participating in USDA, Beef Export Verification (BEV) programs (www.usverified.com). IMI's USVerified customers are BEV participants.

As is often the case, those who hop on the bandwagon early stand to reap the highest premiums. The ball is now in producers' court.