“I hesitate to talk about the past. They say old people talk about the past because they have no future. But I think we do learn a little bit from the past,” says Ken Eng, longtime feedyard consulting nutritionist, cow-calf producer and cowboy poet.

In fact, the recent recipient of the Certified Angus Beef 2012 Industry Achievement Award, says the past has a great deal to teach us about the present. One of those lessons is don’t believe everything you see and half of what you hear.

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In the early ’70s, when the High Plains cattle feeding industry was booming and then busting, Eng spent a lot of time on the "green bean circuit," giving presentations about cattle feeding. It was mandatory back then to have a global climate person also on the program, he says. “And the global climate challenge of that day was global cooling. I recall some pretty interesting and successful people on the programs of that day who said that, by the 1980s, we would no longer grow corn from Ohio north because of global cooling.”

Also mandatory on the program was a talk on world population. “The global population was around 5 billion then, and they thought it was going to hit 6 billion and level off. Well, we just blew through 7 billion and now they say (it will hit) 9.5 billion by 2050.”

Add to that the predictions by some prominent people in the cattle business – following the bust of 1974 and a spike in feed prices in ’75 and ’76 – that grain would no longer be fed to cattle. “Obviously,” Eng says, “the primary thinking at the time was incorrect.”

That’s not to say that the prevailing wisdom should be ignored. It should, however, be analyzed critically, with one eye fixed firmly on the future and one cast backward, reaping the lessons of the past.

“As far as what’s happening recently, I think there are two major trends in this industry since the start of the new millennium,” Eng says. “One is the relentless decrease in the cowherd numbers, which is continuing and I would bet will continue for another 2-3 years. The second is a relentless increase in land values. I don’t think that trend will diminish as long as there’s crop insurance, as long as there are people who will buy land for recreation, and as long as there’s essentially zero-percent interest rates.”

Eng thinks those two trends have changed the mindset of the cow-calf producer, causing cattlemen to look at alternatives to traditional production and marketing models. One alternative that Eng champions is confinement or semi-confinement of commercial beef cows. To explore that production model further, he established the Dr. Kenneth and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation to fund research at three universities – the University of Nebraska, Texas A&M University and Oklahoma State University.

A Closer Look: Eng Foundation Will Fund Cow-Calf Efficiency Research

“There’s been enormous improvement in the performance ability of the cattle you all work with,” he says, a trend he finds particularly interesting as it relates to quality grade and the physiological maturity of cattle. Eng finds it remarkable that the industry can make cattle grade so well when it’s likely that fed cattle are being harvested well shy of their physiological maturity end point.

“If you’ve got a 1,500-lb. cow and a 2,500-lb. bull, my calculations tell me we could produce an 1,800-lb. steer in a heartbeat,” he says. Eng adds that history shows what can happen when cattle get too big. “If you remember when things were really bad in the ’74 period, what happened is overfeeding.” While today’s situation is different, he says that’s still a concern. “Our ability to do damage by getting them too heavy today would be just enormous.”