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Guest Opinions

Continuing to Capture Lost Opportunities

As we plan for a national herd expansion phase over the next few years, future price forecasts for beef continue to stay positive based on improved export markets and long-term global population growth. 

Reports published by the United Nations indicate continued world population growth, with population estimates of 9.6 billion by the year 2050.  Industry experts estimate that beef production will also need to increase by a minimum of 70 percent to keep pace with this growing demand.

Can we meet the target? 

In the United States, the beef industry is facing external challenges of rising feed and fuel prices, decreasing agricultural land base and an aging agricultural population.  As we position ourselves for the future, many of us are asking, “Is a 70 percent increase in production over the next 35 years realistic?”

One way to evaluate potential for improvement is to look back and evaluate the industry’s improvements during the last 25 years. Gary Smith of Texas A&M recently led a similar discussion during the Beef Quality Assurance annual meetings in Denver, Colo. To summarize, while the industry has improved in certain areas, there are still opportunities for improvement.

‘Lost Opportunities’ 

Back in 1991, Chuck Lambert, working for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, attempted to create measurable industry benchmarks for efficient beef production. Many of these early discussions led to the development of the beef quality audits we utilize to evaluate our industry today.  

His focus on “lost opportunities” made the industry realize that, despite dramatic improvements in production, there was still approximately $45 billion to be captured through improved production efficiencies. 

Today’s question is, “Where are we today in comparison to 1991?”

Modest improvements

As you look at total beef production over the last 60 years, there are dramatic improvements in production.  

We continue to increase total pounds of beef produced despite declining national herd size. In the past 25 years there have been large increases in average weaning weights, improvements in feed efficiency during the finishing phase, increased uniformity in carcasses and a reduction in carcass condemnations and blemishes, all of which have improved overall efficiency.  

But have we made improvements in all areas?

Areas of little change  

Despite improvements in some production areas, other measurements have shown little or no change over the last quarter century.  

Overall herd reproductive success remains similar to earlier estimates. Industry data still suggests that approximately 80 percent of cows exposed to a bull go on to produce a weaned calf.  Although these estimates are essentially unchanged, they could also be viewed in a positive light – despite large increases in weaning weights and related milk production in our cow herds, we continue to maintain good reproductive success rates despite the increasing nutrient requirements of our base herds.  

Other areas of “lost opportunities” that remain unchanged include similar morbidity and sickness rates, continued hot iron branding impacting hide quality and continued product shelf life issues that negatively impact efficiency from a retail aspect.

Room for improvement

Although improvements in reproductive success and herd health seem elusive, there are still several opportunities for improvement.  

From a national herd standpoint, there are still opportunities for herds to utilize crossbreeding programs that maximize heterosis.  

Additionally, only 7.6 percent of herds utilize artificial insemination technology, according to the most recent national herd health survey. 

Despite rising feed costs, a low percentage of operations utilize forage testing and ration balancing for their herd.  

Finally, only approximately 20 percent of beef cattle operations utilize computerized record keeping for their herds. All of these examples represent opportunities for continued improvement in the industry. 

To meet the expected increase in beef demand, our industry needs to continue to improve through record keeping, establishing baseline data and setting goals. As Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, ‘cause you might not get there”