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Industry Innovation Is One Thing, But Adoption Is Another

breeding cattle

Pounds may drive revenue in the beef cattle industry, but the number of head is the fuel behind it. By that measure, the size of the U.S. beef cowherd (29.3 million head) on Jan. 1 of this year was the smallest since 1963, but still similar in size to the nation’s cowherd when BEEF magazine was first published.

In 1963, the U.S. wasn’t even 20 years past the end of World War II. Those who fought it were just fixing to hit their career strides. There were about 127.1 million fewer of us (67% fewer) living in the U.S. back then. And, at the time, peak beef cow numbers (45.4 million head) were 12 years away, rather than 38 years hence, like today.

The number of cattle breeds that dominated the commercial landscape in the U.S. in 1963 could be counted on one hand. You can say the same 50 years later.

Innovation and technology have enabled the smallest cowherd since 1963 to churn out about as much beef as it did when cow numbers were at their peak.

“By 1960, one farmer could feed 26 people. Today, a farmer feeds 155 people worldwide,” say authors of “Living in a World of Decreasing Resources & Increasing Regulation: How to Advance Animal Agriculture.” This white paper was synthesized from information presented at the 2012 Annual Conference of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA).

Heading toward thestart of the golden anniversary year for BEEF this month, we asked readers what they believed to be the most significant industry innovations in the past 50 years.

Pour-on insecticides received the most votes, followed by artificial insemination (AI). Human nature being what it is, keep in mind that folks sometimes do what they say they will; other times, they only say it.

For instance, thumb through the most recent report on U.S. cow-calf management practices from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS - 2007-2008 Part II) and, sure enough, 81.7% reported deworming mature cows at least once each year, while 69.7% said they dewormed replacement heifers at least once annually. Approximately 54% of operations with unweaned calves or weaned stocker calves reported deworming one or more times annually.

For those deworming at least occasionally (62.7%), efficacy was the primary factor in choosing a product, followed by ease of application (49.5%), and price (20.4%).

The use of AI is another matter entirely, however.

According to NAHMS, only 7.2% of operations utilized AI, mostly for heifers. Of the heifers and cows intended to be bred in 2007, 1.4% were destined for AI alone. Another 5% were destined for AI and natural exposure to bulls. So, 6.4% of the cattle in those operations had the opportunity to be bred AI.

Regionally, those in the West (13.6% of operations) and Central (11.4%) utilized AI significantly more than those in the South (4.9%) and East (5.5%). Overall, 7.9% of the operations said they used estrus synchronization.


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Labor and time were the chief reasons given for not utilizing AI (37.7%). Next came cost (21.1%), complexity/difficulty (16.0%), and lack of facilities (10.6%). It’s also worth noting that 54.5% of all responding operations, accounting for 34.1% of the beef cows, reported having no defined breeding season.

Conversely, though harder to measure, there is no question the industry continues to take seriously the notion of understanding changing consumer desires. Readers ranked that factor fourth overall among the top industry innovations of the past 50 years.

And perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the advent of portable computing (No. 11) ranked ahead of such innovations as genetic evaluation with EPDs (20), crossbreeding (21), gooseneck trailers (24), growth implants (31) and boxed beef (33).

There’s no right or wrong, obviously, but the results of the BEEF reader survey conducted in July make for some instructional pondering.


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