In the late 1860s, Texas drovers had few concerns about their primary market when they herded loose-hided, long-horned cattle to Kansas railheads. They knew the cattle eventually would feed a population made up primarily of white Americans of European heritage.
America's population was less than 40 million. The average American was 20 years old. And most immigrants were coming from Europe and adding to a largely white population.
How things change. When American beef producers raise genetically superior cattle in 2020, they will be providing beef for a population of 323 million, and just 64% will be white. The two most heavily populated states - California and Texas - will have a majority of minorities.
About 67% of the population will be older than 24, and more than 20% will be older than 65. The family unit will be dispersed among traditional and single mother or single father households. Immigrants will come primarily from Latin America and Asia.
New Demographics This diversity, and lack of a cohesive culture, in the next century will change the way Americans approach food, say two forward-looking experts in the area of foodservice and retail.
Tom Perini of Buffalo Gap, TX, is a rancher, restaurateur and caterer, and president of the 5,500-member Texas Restaurant Association. International supermarket consultant Chuck Hendryx has worked with meat departments for supermarkets in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
As they watch the profile of that consumer change, many of beef's production practices and marketing approaches will have to change in response, they say. But they agree that tenderness and flavor will continue to rule tomorrow's beef industry.
"In foodservice of the future, we have to have steaks that taste good and eat good," Perini says. "Do all you want about fat and genetics, but if those two characteristics aren't there, you've got a problem."
"Tomorrow's profitable cattle will be those that produce a premium steak - either Prime or Choice - if beef is going to retain its position as a premier meat," Hendryx adds. "Tomorrow's consumer will want tender, flavorful beef."
But beyond those common denominators, variables abound. As the population ages, as minorities become majorities, as single-parent households become more prevalent, socioeconomic groups will create market niches. And these demographics will place new demands upon tomorrow's beef industry.
Older Americans Will Have Impact An aging population particularly concerns Perini. He's watched the growth of chains like Outback Steakhouse build demand for middle meats. Yet he knows this growth has coincided with a maturing of the Baby Boom generation (Americans born between 1946 and 1964). Call it reaching for the good life or discarding unfounded health concerns, but this population group has consumed delicious steaks with gusto.
Will it last? Perini, a steakhouse owner, thinks not. "Americans are going to cut back," he says. "We are going to get an older group that's not going to eat as much beef on a regular basis. They won't give up their steaks, but they will eat them as a treat. The rest of the time, they'll seek smaller portions - 2 or 3 ounces of beef instead of a 12-ounce ribeye."
Income will be a factor. Retired boomers in 2020 will have less expendable income than in the 1990s. Middle cuts like ribeyes and T-bones will be less affordable than end meats. To keep boomers eating beef, Perini says the industry will have to provide affordable end meats from cattle that have consistent quality.
An aging population has similar ramifications for retail, Hendryx says. Boomers will reach 2020 after eating out and honing few kitchen skills for an entire career. From pork and poultry, they will have acquired an appreciation for convenient products lower in fat and cholesterol. They'll ask for nothing less from the beef industry.
Hendryx acknowledges the industry's strides to produce more products that combine convenience and nutrition. He applauds the new checkoff advertising campaign to promote entrees ready to eat in less than 10 minutes. He urges producers to re-dedicate themselves to these programs every year because these qualities will be just as important to consumers two decades from now.
"Beef must become more aggressive and make its products more presentable with pre-cooked, marinated, entree-type meals," Hendryx says. "Learn from the pork and poultry industries, then decide where you want to be in 25 years."
It will take time. Hendryx points out that beef still is making the transition from boxed beef to case-ready beef. And he predicts additional changes must take place within the raw products for case-ready beef to become as common as case-ready poultry. That includes less variation, more consistency and higher quality.
"In the next 20 years, beef producers will have to reduce inconsistency," Hendryx says. "They'll have to adopt technology that predicts and influences how cattle are fed to produce for a specific quality grade and weight. And they'll have to adopt genetic technology like DNA testing that will identify bulls to produce cattle with more reliability, tenderness and marbling, and limited fat. Feedlots that control the genetics of the animals they feed to eliminate the undesirable characteristics will see a breakthrough."
As genetically improved cattle are identified, Hendryx sees the industry changing its marketing approach. Cattle that physically can't reach a Choice grade without putting on excessive fat may be short fed grain. Their middle meats after tenderization could go into some markets, but the bulk of their muscle meats would go into grinding. This will keep less desirable cuts from compromising steaks and roasts from Choice cattle.
"I think demand for ground beef will continue to grow," Hendryx said. "We already have lean and extra lean ground beef, ground round and ground sirloin. In foodservice, we have Wendys and Burger Kings adding units every day. So a producer who has to raise certain cattle for environmental reasons may someday realize more profit by producing them for grinding than shooting for Choice."
Ethnic Influence The growing influence of ethnic groups - Hispanics, blacks and Asians - will exert a different pressure on the beef industry. Feeders will have to produce beef for each ethnic niche. But, if the industry pays attention, it could be a mutually beneficial relationship, Perini says.
"We wouldn't be where we are today with some of our undervalued cuts if it weren't for the influence of different ethnic groups," Perini says.
For example, Perini says 30 years ago brisket was an unknown commodity. "It was a tough, cheap piece of meat that was known for having so many different grains running through it."
Yet in black neighborhoods, restaurant operators learned how to cook the brisket slowly in pits. The result was a tender, flavorful piece of meat that has become synonymous with Texas barbecue.
Skirt steak, once given away as dog food by neighborhood butchers, has a similar story. In the late 1970s, Texas A&M meat science professors received inquiries about a dish called fajitas made from skirt steak. They traced fajitas' roots to Hispanic families in South Texas, who marinated and sliced the cut to be served in tortillas. The dish became a national hit.
"Today, you find the brisket and skirt steak in even the finest restaurants," Perini sys. "That's something that's come about because people paid attention to what different cultures were doing with unfamiliar beef cuts."
Though the beef industry will be forced to change cattle to meet future demand, Perini and Hendryx say there's a vital structural need to be addressed. That's to restore profitability to the beef industry - up and down the chain - to ensure that there's a beef industry to worry about changes in 2020.
"I'm concerned about the rancher," Perini says. "They have problems. For the rancher willing to watch his cattle's genetics and produce a desirable animal, there will have to be a reward system. Otherwise, we could lose this whole industry."
Hendryx says the adversarial relationship that pervades the industry has to be improved for consumers to buy beef in 2020.
"I grew up in an era where beef was important, and all my peers in the supermarket industry felt the same," Hendryx says. "Today, we have a new era of meat market managers who don't have that loyalty to beef because they grew up in an age when beef was no longer king.
"To overcome that, this industry has to have more cooperation up and down its segments. We have to have more communication so the retailer tells the producer what he or she needs to change. We need producers and feeders willing to change. We need a system that shares premiums with all participants."
The beef industry has faced many challenges, and it won't be much different in 2020. As Hendryx says, despite all its problems, beef is standing in the last year of the 20th century deciding what to do 20 years hence with a beef-eating public.
"At least, we're not wondering what to do with a non-beef-eating public," he says.