When the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) was first launched back in 1991, the beef industry was facing some daunting challenges – beef demand was spiraling downward and the product cattlemen were producing and selling to consumers didn’t meet their wants and desires.

Through the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, cattlemen rose to meet the challenge; 20 years later, many of the quality defects identified in the early audits have largely been corrected. The industry changed production practices, became more consumer-focused, and began producing a product that consumers were willing to buy and consume.

According to the 2011 NBQA, however, while those early challenges have been met, the landscape of the industry, and of society, has changed. And that means cattlemen, in an effort to keep producing the kind of beef consumers demand, will need to address and meet a different set of challenges – challenges that are perhaps a little harder for the industry to wrap its collective arms around.

What the research found

The 2011 NBQA was conducted in three phases over 11 months.

 Phase I involved face-to-face interviews in each production sector. Some conclusions from the interviews were:

• Terminology about quality among segments is not standardized.

• According to interview participants, consumers want to know more about the beef they consume, how it’s raised and where it comes from.

• Food safety is the single most important quality attribute to packers, foodservice and retailers.

• While the industry produces a safe, high-quality product, continuous improvement in these areas should be an industry-wide focus.

• The entire industry prides itself on humane animal treatment, but segments closer to the consumer have additional customer/societal pressures to ensure humane treatment.

• The industry must do a better job telling its story.

Phase II involved a comprehensive evaluation of around 18,000 carcasses. Results from this research include:

• Individual animal ID has increased. The number of cattle individually identified with visual tags jumped from 38.7% in 2005 to 50.6% in 2011.

• An increasing number of carcasses are grading USDA Choice and Prime. This suggests continued improvement in product eating quality.

• Instrument grading was not found to be notably different than human cooler grading. These results may accelerate the trend toward more instrument grading.

• Carcass size has increased significantly, but along with that, average quality grades have improved. This suggests the industry has made strides in selection and management, especially at the feedyard.

• The trend toward more branded beef at the supermarket was supported by both Phase 1 and Phase II research. This suggests a need for more program cattle.

Phase III involved a survey of 3,755 cattle producers, who helped identify the adoption of BQA management principles. Results include:

• Nearly 90% of producers have a working relationship with their veterinarian. However, about a quarter said they would use medications other than as directed on the label without being directed by a vet.

• Use of electric prods is becoming rare. Overall, 98.4% said they do not use an electric prod as their primary driving tool.

• Progress continues to be made in the quality areas identified in the 1991 audit. The preferred route of administration for injections is subcutaneous (84.2%) and 87% said their preferred location for injections is in front of the shoulder.

• About 78% had attended a meeting at which best management practices or BQA principles had been discussed. Of those cow-calf producers who had attended a BQA session, 99% said they followed best management practices consistent with BQA.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

So what does this mean for cow-calf producers? Tackling injection sites and routes of administration is a tangible, solvable problem; food safety, flavor and tenderness is something else altogether.

“I think one of the things we have a tendency to say at the production level is that we’re so far removed that we don’t need to assume or take on accountability for this product,” says Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I think what we’re learning is, that is in fact our job.”

It starts at the very beginning with the seedstock operator all the way up to the person who sells the final product to the consumer, he says. “Everyone shares a piece of the accountability for how well their product performs. And when the product performs well and demand goes up, we all go with it; we all do better because demand is rising. And so I think, at the end of the day, we need take a hard look at every decision we make as participants of this supply chain.”

To do that, he says cow-calf producers need to ask themselves three questions:

• Are the decisions I’m about to make going to impact the eating quality of the product that’s going to be delivered from this animal? And if it is going to negatively impact it, I need to have very clear reasons why I’m going to make that decision.

• Is what I’m about to do going to reflect positively on the integrity of the product and on the integrity of my industry?

• Is what I’m about to do something I’m going to be proud to include in the beef story?

The bottom line, Field says, is to think about the things you do on your ranch as if you had five minutes sitting next to somebody on an airplane. Could you explain to them why we do what we do?

Field describes how they addressed this issue on his family ranch in Western Colorado. “As we went through that process, one of the things I struggled with is that I had a hard time explaining dehorning. There was no advantage I could come up with to having horns.”

So they went from a herd that 30 years ago did 100% dehorning at branding time, to one where less than 2% are dehorned today; they did it by breeding the horns out.

“That’s a lot easier for me to brag about. I can say to people that there was a challenge because horns were creating bruising. We don’t have that now because of genetics. And people will smile because they know you’re thoughtful and you picked the things you could do something about and you were intentional. And that buys you a lot of good will with the consumer. I think that’s the key to think about,” Field says.

In the 2011 NBQA, three pillars of beef chain success rose to the top. Food safety is the number one challenge facing cattlemen. It’s followed by eating satisfaction, defined as flavor; and by consumers’ desire to know how and where cattle were raised.

So the challenge for cattlemen, Field says, is this: Can we get it right and can we tell our story to consumers? “We only have two options. Either we get it right and we tell consumers that, or we see the cowherd continue to shrink.”

To read an executive summary of the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit at www.bqa.org/audit.aspx.