By Allen Livingston IV
Bigger is Better?
Bigger is not always better, but try telling that to ranchers who get paid for their cattle by weight. Add to that equation, order buyers that have been trained for years to buy the largest framed animals that can put on the most weight for feedlots and packers alike, and you have an industry that is stuck in a rut of paying for quantity not quality. This mindset led to the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) being developed as a basis for cattle producers and animal scientists to compare management techniques and genetics industry wide. The check off funded study that focuses on the end product has been conducted four times in 1991, 1995, 2000, and 2005. During this time, yield grades 4 & 5 as well as heavy weight discounts have increased, and the overall percentage of choice and prime animals has decreased. This trend is the exact opposite of what the market wants, which is smaller lean cuts of beef that fits the consumer’s preferences.
Many of the cuts today are too large for foodservice and restaurant needs, which rely on boxed beef supplies from packers. Packers in return cite the inconsistency of cattle sizes and weight as the main culprit of the larger cuts. Ideally, they want cattle that are yield grade 3 or better and quality grades of select or higher. While many different factors influence these measurements, Brahman breeders have the ability to play a vital role in the type of cattle that end up on the dinner plate.
Due to the popularity of Brahman cattle in commercial operations, Brahman seed stock producers realize that they must breed cattle that will not cause problems for their customers, with birth weight and calving ease being the first and foremost traits of importance. However, commercial cattlemen still focus on structural soundness, size, thickness, length and balance, because they still sell their product by the pound. When in reality, they have to appreciate the fact that seed stock producers produce cattle and they produce beef. And in order for the beef industry to capture more market share and abide by what the consumer wants, commercial cattlemen should take advantage of quality genetics that will help them produce more moderate framed cattle that the market desires.
As mentioned before, seed stock producers have the ability to shape the beef that ends up in the consumer’s grocery cart. In order for this to happen, they should listen to what the commercial operator has cow wise and then sell them what they need to produce more moderate framed cattle and not sell them anything at any cost. Seed stock producers also have to convey to them that by utilizing Brahman genetics, it will allow them to take full advantage of the great feed efficiency that comes from cross-breading Brahman cattle. The higher feed efficiency combined with lighter cattle results in an animal that is cheaper to feed and will stand to bring higher premiums. Unlike in the past, today’s packers are more in tuned with consumer needs and as a result, have instituted changes over the years to provide consumers the type of products they desire, and reward producers with better premiums as a result. These premiums come about when an order buyer can group a set of moderate feeders that can still put on weight and have a low cost of gain, while at the same time not grow so large that they get discounted as fats by the packer. Of course there will be some commercial producers that only want large bulls/cows, but once they realize that moderate framed cattle will be cheaper in the long run and allow them to be more profitable, they then will start to change their minds.
Over the past 20 years, the beef industry has been at a crossroads: how do they get away from the idea of producing a commodity and instead focus on providing consumer driven products like the pork and poultry industry has done. During this time, the NBQA helped to identify where the industry short comings were and since that time, has allowed all segments to work together to produce better beef. As a result, many food service companies like Aramark and ConAgra, conveyed that they wanted smaller products because of the growing trend of restaurants reducing portion sizes to meet the demands of their customers. This information has been slowly trickling down to packers and feeders for some time now. Those producers that are smart and innovative will take advantage of this information and could stand to reap greater profits. Large frame cattle are by no means obsolete, but instead of them ruling the market place as they have for years, they will instead have to be used to breed more moderate framed cattle in the future. Combine the cheaper feed costs from high feed efficiency Brahman crossbreds with the premiums offered for moderate cattle and you get profitable commercial cattlemen that will keep coming back to your herd for replacement animals for years to come. Finally, this new dynamic provides a wonderful opportunity for Brahman breeders to have more influence on the beef industry by providing quality genetics that allow commercial cattlemen to produce more moderate framed cattle that will be in high demand for years to come.