U.S. beef industry works to overcome challenges

Lost opportunities | Losses seen from poor feed efficiency and reproductive performance, but some improvements noted

DENVER, Colo. — The once mighty North American beef industry may soon become a shadow of its former self if changes are not made soon. 


“We may be the next lamb industry, and we damn sure don’t want that to happen,” said Bo Reagan, chair of the International Stockman’s Foundation, during the recent International Livestock Congress in Denver. 


The U.S. industry has conducted beef quality audits every five years since 1991, and Canada has run similar assessments. Both countries found problems with beef quality, in which too many cattle had bruises, lesions from needles and problems with toughness. 


On the other hand, improvements have been made with animal care and animal growth. 


“I think we have made remarkable progress,” said Gary Smith, a meat scientist and professor emeritus at Colorado State University. 


Smith said there is plenty of room for improvement when comparing economic studies from 1989 to what is happening today. He based his information on research by Chuck Lambert, former chief economist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who assessed lost opportunities in beef production. 


Lambert identified 11 sources of potential gain with reproductive performance and death losses being among the areas needing the greatest improvement. 


The U.S. industry generated $45 billion in 1989, which could have been increased by $12 billion by correcting some of those losses. Lambert calculated the total costs of these inefficiencies at $458 per steer. 


Audits have examined beef from fed cattle and butcher bulls and cows, but the industry has not taken a hard look at economic losses associated with reproductive performance, death loss, branding, weaning weight, multiple processing, feed efficiency and retail losses. 


Three-quarters of the U.S. beef supply comes from beef cattle and the rest from dairy animals. Dairy has probably made greater gains in fertility and performance because producers keep exact records on every animal in the herd.


Fertility remains a challenge. 


Lambert said the United States could wean 95 percent of its calves instead of the 80 percent identified in 1989. There has been little change in this, he added. 


Canadian studies have found similar calf survival rates. 


Getting cows pregnant and making sure they wean a healthy calf can be affected by genetics, management and weather, especially in recent years. 


“It is so driven by our weather situation, here and in the rest of the world, that we are going to expose ourselves as an industry, periodically, to things like drought,” said Smith. 


Many cows failed to conceive be-cause of drought in the western U.S. in recent years. Others delivered weak calves that barely survived.


Weak calf syndrome occurs when cows do not get enough protein in the last trimester of pregnancy. As a result, calves do not receive enough good colostrums and consequently have weakened immune systems and cannot fight diseases. 


Others die from pneumonia, scours or difficult calving because of overlarge calves. 


Income is lost when calves die and their mothers must still be fed. However, cull cow values have increased in response to low supplies of grinding beef. 


“A lot of people are keeping those open cows because right now, they are worth about $1,200. That is how short we are of cow meat,” Smith said.


However, the calves that do survive are bigger than ever.


U.S. weaning weights used to average less than 500 pounds but are now 550 lb. 


The Canadian Beef Cattle Research Council found average weaning weights were 477 lb. in 1980 and 576 lb. in 2010. 


Other areas of improvement are connected to better genetics and management. More people are using pre-conditioning to protect their cattle before they go to feedlots, where they are subjected to numerous health challenges. 


A common feedlot problem is respiratory illness, which affects gain or kills the animals. 


Higher weight gain is the result of improvements in genetics, ration formulation, health and welfare management. 


Today, 5.75 lb. of feed yields one lb. of beef, compared to seven lb. of feed in 1989.


Producers continue to brand their cattle, especially in the West. 


More than 40 percent of cattle were branded in 1991, which continues to day. However, more producers are moving the brands to the hip rather than the side so that less leather is damaged.


Some argue that cattle heading straight for slaughter from a feedlot do not need to be branded. As well, there are no real economic rewards for shipping cattle with unblemished hides. 


“There is no market signal sent saying, ‘I will pay more for something that is not branded,’ and it is not possible, at the speed processors move at, to sort hides into groups that are branded or not branded,” Smith said.


There are still too many instances where carcasses are too big, too small, grade and yield poorly or are dark cutters.


Canadian beef research reports the incidence of dark cutters has in-creased since 2004, particularly in the West, while they have declined in Eastern Canada. 


Carcasses are steadily getting bigger in both Canada and the U.S. because producers are paid by the pound. Any improvements in this area may be linked to more packer payment grids, in which producers must meet certain quality specifications and are paid accordingly.


These bigger carcasses also have more fat waste, which must be trimmed off retail cuts and has little value as a rendered product.


Retailers today trim fat back to a depth of 1/16 to 1/4 of an inch.


“The consumer doesn’t want an inch of fat around the cut anymore. We had to get the industry to recognize that war on fat,” Smith said. 


Carcass condemnations are down, but organ meats such as livers are still condemned because of abscesses or sores.


Auditors report less bruising be-cause of better management and improved animal welfare and care. There has also been a large reduction in injection site injuries, especially in prime cuts of meat. 


Moving injection sites from prime meat locations to the neck have made a considerable difference. In addition, most injections can be delivered under the skin rather than the muscle. 


There is still a problem with beef turning dark in the retail case. The problem is alleviated if cattle receive vitamin E in their diets before slaughter, but adoption has been poor because its costs about $1 per head.


Cargill Meats used to insist that all cattle receive the vitamin but ended the practice several years ago.