Never before in history have so few fed so many and fed them so luxuriously as U.S. agricultural producers do today.
That observation is unoriginal, though the reality is often taken for granted — even by producers.
“Since World War II, we have been the beneficiaries of the decreasing cost of food to where we spend less than 10% of our annual disposable income for food. One could argue that our entire consumer economy depends on having inexpensive food,” explained Dr. Laura Kahn at last fall’s annual convention of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. “Agriculture and the food security it provides is really the foundation of civilization itself.”
Kahn is a physician and research scholar with Princeton University’s program on science and global security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She’s also a co-founder of the One Health Initiative.
Sustainably producing such largesse is borne by a combination of things, of course: old and new, innovation built upon experience and attention to details in both genetics and management.
Consider things as mundane as grazing and weaning.
Kris Ringwall, a beef specialist at North Dakota State University, points out in his BeefTalk newsletter that weaning calves early can save 25% of available forage. That’s based on research at the Dickinson Research Extension Center, weaning calves in mid-August versus early November.
This concept isn’t new; dry cows have fewer nutritional requirements than lactating ones. Early weaning is often considered amid dry conditions like those currently faced by some producers in the Dakotas and parts of the Southeast.
Producers are just as familiar with the need to tally the net economic trade-off of the management tool. The benefit side of the ledger in this case includes forage savings, increased cow body condition, a potential boost in reproduction and a more favorable marketing window for cull cows. The cost side includes things like lighter calves at weaning and potentially squandered feed resources.
The point is, effective beef cattle managers make these kinds of decisions every day about how to get the most from the least.
Now consider something as new as genomic testing and tools.
At the recent Beef Improvement Federations (BIF) annual meeting, Thomas Lawlor, director of research at Holstein Association USA, described the evolution of genotyping and genomic-enhanced selection in the Holstein breed.
Rather than find the next must-have, curve-bending bull, Lawlor says the top Holstein breeders today are more interested in how increasingly dependable genetics can increase production and decrease cost.
“The real driver behind the pursuit for faster genetic gain are the improved genetics they bring into their herd,” Lawlor says. “The real money is made from milking those elite genetics. This is the true success of the genomic era.”
It’s more than genomics. The type of breeders mentioned by Lawlor harness the potential by using advanced reproductive tools like in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“Seedstock breeders are putting in vitro fertilization facilities on their farm, negotiating their own contracts with AI companies, consulting with geneticists, studying consumer and economic trends, and trying to predict where our industry is headed,” Lawlor explains.
You can find similar examples among beef seedstock and commercial producers.
“Farmers are more convinced than ever of the importance of good genetics in their herds,” Lawlor says. “Many are investing heavily in it and are convinced that their herd will be more profitable due to their genomic breeding program.”