Back in the day, when you asked a cattle feeder what kind of cattle he liked to feed, he’d jokingly reply, “The kind that can walk up to the bunk.”
Given the tight supply of feeder cattle now, that old joke may make the rounds again. But even in the face of the smallest inventory in around 60 years, cattle feeders are still looking for the “right kind.”
And what is that? “It breaks down into three pieces,” says Tom Brink, vice president of cattle ownership and risk management for JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding. “First, we want cattle that have good performance potential.”
In Brink’s estimation, around 25-30% of the cattle they feed don’t have adequate performance, even though they’ve seen the overall performance potential of the cattle they feed get much better over the past 5-10 years. “But there is still a pretty good segment of the cattle population that could use more performance,” he says.
Which brings up the second point, what is the best finished weight for steers? “A good target for us would be 1,350-1,400 lbs.” he says. However, he cautions that there’s such a thing as too big. “In round terms, a 1,500-lb. steer will give you about a 1,000-lb carcass. And that’s where most grids and formulas start to discount.”
So, it’s important to pay attention to genetics. “Some of those very large frame, late-maturing cattle we bred 15 years ago, we don’t need to go back to that,” he says. “But we do need to find the genetics, and it’s easier to do today, to take our steers to 1,350-1,400 lbs. as a desired finish weight.”
However, he says if you ask Five Rivers' feedyard managers what the biggest problem they face day in and day out, it’s animal health. “And that is from a group that feeds mostly yearling cattle,” he says. Just as with performance, Brink says the industry’s health management has improved. But there’s still room for progress.
That means there’s an opportunity for cow-calf producers and stockers to add value to their cattle. Brink says JBS has developed a grid with a group of ranchers they work with that has a health premium built in. “There are premiums for good, solid health programs that you can believe in.”
The ability to verify has value not only at the production level, but at the consumer level as well, says John Butler, CEO of the Beef Marketing Group. Consumers, he says, want more transparency and more information about where their food comes from. “They’re seeking a personal connection with the food they consume. And there’s value there.”
But for the beef marketing chain to realize that value, verification and certification are necessary. “Do consumers pay attention? Does it mean anything? Yes. If there’s a Good Housekeeping-type of seal, some sort of teeth behind the promises we’re making, there is more value,” Butler says. “And they will seek it out.”
Three areas he believes that are important for the industry to focus its verification and certification efforts on are food safety, environmentally friendly practices and animal care.
Food safety. “What can we do to assure the consumer has a safe eating experience every time with the beef we produce?” In addition to the industry’s efforts already in this arena, Butler says there are some new technologies and new interventions coming to the fore that will add to the arsenal.
“But there is no single silver bullet,” he says. “It’s going to take us (feeders), the cow-calf guy, the packer, the distribution segment, all of us, working together to deliver on that.”
Environmentally friendly practices. “There are a lot of things we do right today,” he says. But putting that story in a consumer-friendly package continues to be the challenge. “We’re trying to put our arms around that with some systems that verify, in fact, that we are being environmentally correct, that we are adhering to the environmental regulations and standards that are set by the respective states where we operate.”
Animal care. Just when you think all’s well, another clandestine video pops up that paints animal agriculture in a bad light. “We can’t stand for that,” he says. “We’ve got to have integrity. We’re doing a good job with that today. Now we need to verify that and carry that story to the consumer.”
Butler says it’s important to notice that in each of those three areas, “we’re not changing the cattle. We’re creating value based on what the consumer is telling us.”