Allow me to start my first column of the year with a confession. I’m a Hereford lover. My affair began at an early age on the dairy/beef/sheep farm I grew up on in New Zealand.
My family had a purebred Friesian milking herd and we supplied raw milk to the local community and cheese factory. As part of our beef enterprise, my Dad mated the best Hereford bulls he could find with some of our dairy heifers. The result was some of the finest cattle I’ve ever seen. They were extremely docile and handsome creatures.
A bonus, to me, was that because of the genetic mix, some looked like pure Herefords, some looked like black and whites, while others looked like black baldies. Raised year-round on lush grass pasture, these cattle went to slaughter at about 30 months of age. And their beef sure tasted mighty good.
Like all proud producers, Dad believed he had the best cattle in the world. When it came time to send them to the abattoir, he would haggle with Barry, the meat company buyer (we sold all our stock directly, starting in the 1960s).
I remember Barry nodding patiently as Dad extolled the virtues of the cattle. Then Barry would say in a quiet but authoritative voice: “If only I could give you more for your cattle, Mr. Kay, but that darn American market has depressed our prices again.”
I began my newsletter, Cattle Buyers Weekly, in 1987, naming it partly in memory of the ritual sparring between Dad and Barry. I recognized then that the buyer-seller relationship is all-important in the livestock industry, that quality always pays, and that the global market often determines prices. These factors are even more important today. Just look at how increased U.S. beef exports in 2010 underpinned the live cattle market.
I still love Herefords and always will. But I’ve also gained a great respect for Angus cattle and what the breed has done for the U.S. and global industry. The breed’s renaissance began in the 1980s after the American Angus Association launched its Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) program.
It’s worth remembering that one of the program’s founders was an Angus producer who got a tough steak in a restaurant serving Angus beef. The Angus fraternity, before the rest of the industry, realized that beef had a consistency problem that was hurting consumer demand.
The growth of Angus and CAB has been well documented. But the latest facts are worth repeating, to put the Angus breed’s influence in perspective. About 30,000 Angus breeders supply seedstock to the cow-calf sector. Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. cattle are now Angus-influenced. The CAB program has 60-70 licensed feedlots and hundreds of others that deliver CAB cattle to 30 licensed slaughter plants.
The CAB program in fiscal 2010 (to Sept. 30) identified nearly 15 million head and certified 3.5 million head. This was a 24% increase over the previous year. In addition, the 23% acceptance rate pushed a five-year trend of increases to new levels. This proves that quality-minded ranchers are setting the bar higher and meeting it, says CAB.
Packers, in turn, sell CAB products on to retailers and foodservice operators in the U.S. and all over the world. CAB has 13,600 licensed users in 42 countries. Remarkably for a 32-year-old program, CAB’s sales volume increased 17.2% in 2010 from 2009. Volume topped 777 million lbs., up 114 million lbs. from the prior year.
As CAB noted, its growth defied the conventional wisdom that premium brands struggle during a recession. That’s because consumers highly value consistency and programs like CAB give them an assurance of consistency. The Angus breed’s greatest contribution to the industry is that it led the charge to making all beef more consistent, thus arresting the decline in demand and then improving it.