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Articles from 1999 In November


Branded Lessons

Imagine selling more beef and getting paid more for the beef you sell. Imagine selling beef so fast that demand runs ahead of supply.

This fantasy is already daily reality. At least it is for some branded programs that are rapidly growing loyal demand within a shrinking industry by giving consumers exactly what they want - first time, every time.

"The industry is starting to realize that there is no one customer. One way to expand the market is to focus on these different customers," says Laura Freeman, president and CEO of Laura's Lean Beef (LLB). Ironically, Freeman has grown her company by serving the needs of consumers who rarely eat beef because of diet-health concerns. Her customers seek lean, all-natural beef.

Conversely, Certified Angus Beef (CAB), undeniably the most prolific beef brand, accounts for approximately 6% of this nation's fed cattle market by serving consumer desire for beef taste.

"The answers are all there. All we have to do is listen to the consumer," says Mick Colvin, CAB executive director. In 1990, licensees moved about 85 million lbs. of product. By 1998 volume grew to 411 million lbs. marketed in 44 countries.

"The industry keeps looking for a silver bullet to satisfy consumers, and to me that silver bullet is taste," says Colvin. He explains their customers want taste first, then tenderness and juiciness. "The main part of that equation is consistency for all of those things."

Likewise, David Hall, senior vice president of branded beef at Farmland National Beef (FNB) says, "We're trying to provide restaurant quality beef to consumers they can have any day of the week ... the bottom line is taste and tenderness, the overall eating experience." FNB began marketing branded beef in 1994. Since then, Hall says branded sales have grown at a 25% clip each year.

Coleman Natural Products (CNP) also guns for the taste buds first, but they do it with a twist. "Our beef tastes good because it's raised differently. From birth, cattle receive no hormones or antibiotics (all-natural)," explains Lee Arst, CNP president and CEO.

Targeting the natural market, Arst says sales have grown every year since the company began in 1979. Sales last year, mostly beef products, were $55 million.

Each of these programs has established carcass specifications to build a consistent product for their target consumer. As an example, CAB carcasses must grade mid-Choice and higher, Yield Grade 3.9 and leaner, and fall within USDA's youngest age classification of 9-30 months. Carcasses must be from cattle whose haircoats are at least 51% black.

On the other side of the marbling fence, Charlie Peters, LLB regional procurement director explains, "About 80 percent of the people who buy our product are not regular consumers of red meat. They are users of pork and poultry, or hardly any meat at all. The other 20 percent are what we call prescription eaters. They like beef, but for health reasons are looking for a lean product."

These customers want lean and all-natural first, followed by uniformity and consistency, palatability and price. That's why LLB puts a premium on heavy muscled, Select quality grade, Yield Grade 1 and leaner, all-natural carcasses, he says.

"We focus on one customer segment, that's all we do," emphasizes Freeman of Laura's Lean. She founded the company in 1985 after her doctor told her to quit eating beef in order to lose weight after giving birth to her daughter. As a seventh generation Kentucky cattle producer, that didn't sit very well with her.

Build The System "Our same-store sales grew 20 percent last year. Our target for growth in 1999 is 40 percent," says Freeman. Annual company sales grew 35-40% the past few years on the way to $50 million in 1998. "It's all because of our consumer focus," says Freeman.

Once consumer targets are defined, consistently hitting the bulls-eye is no accident.

"The reason our product continues to perform is our science-based specifications," says Colvin. "Every pound is monitored for the performance and integrity of that product, from grading to consumer."

In fact, some all-natural programs monitor cattle all the way back to individual cows and the feed used to grow them. "We know the source of all of the cattle in the program, when they were born, where they came from, how old they were going into the feedlot and heading to harvest. We know what health treatments cattle have received at each stage of their lives," says Peters. The folks at Coleman can tell you the same.

The crux of specifications and elaborate monitoring systems is consumer trust. "The consumer wants something she can trust. That's the advantage of a brand," says Arst.

Hall adds that a brand with integrity is really a promise to the consumer. Providing a consistent product is delivering on that promise. "It's not enough to throw a high quality product out there, but when you can bring it with a name the consumer knows and trusts, it will drive purchases."

So, building consumer trust is all about understanding their needs. Now and in the future that means understanding the value of time and convenience.

"A lesson we have learned from our licensees is that consumers want a meal that is quick to prepare, but they won't sacrifice quality to get the product," says Russ Johnson, CAB's retail value-added products specialist. He says the growth in value of added product sales has been phenomenal. In the last four years, sales of value-added products have increased over 1,790%.

Colvin emphasizes the need for quality in tandem with convenience. He says, "We compare and test a lot of pre-cooked products. There are some very good products out there, however, we have found a wide range in quality and desirability among the products we have tested."

Reap The Reward If you can serve them, consumers are willing to part with some extra cash.

For instance, Arst explains, "We sell a premium product. If consumers didn't like it, they wouldn't pay a premium price." As it is, Coleman customers will pay 25-100% more on different beef products, compared to conventional beef. Other programs can command similar premiums.

"Consumers are willing to pay a premium for any product," says Hall. "In the grocery trade, premium products can capture 30 percent of a category. What you're doing by adding a high-end product like ours is trading up consumers." In other words, rather than cannibalizing sales, he explains premium products add margin to every segment.

That's why each of the branded programs mentioned here offers some sort of economic incentive to pull the product consumers want through the system. Some are tied to a grid or live premium, while others negotiate a price with feeder and fed-cattle suppliers. LLB goes so far as to pay a bonus to the cow/calf producer who raises the calf but decides not to retain ownership, in addition to premiums for the calves and the fed cattle coming out of the lot.

Another thing these branded programs share is a singular focus on what they're doing, rather than worrying about the competition. "CAB is not about volume. It's about doing things right and maintaining focus on integrity and quality, and the volume comes from that," says Colvin.

Peters puts it this way: "Everything we do is driven by the consumer. If customers said they want beef from purple cows, we'd figure out how to get that done."

Beef and tofu

If you were to combine the attributes of beef, the best tasting protein in the world, with the soy industry's expertise at marketing something as formidable as tofu, the pairing would be tough to beat.

It's an alliance that could come about, if we don't squander the opportunity. You have a part to play.

Representatives of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), six other meat producing organizations and the Soy Protein Council are currently discussing Appendix A. If enacted, this pending USDA rule could potentially allow greater amounts of vegetable protein products (VPP) to be served as part of school lunches. Generally, VPPs include soy flour, isolated soy protein or textured soy protein (TSP).

At first glance, Appendix A would appear to threaten beef's $75 million in annual sales to the nation's school foodservice program. Look more closely, however, and doors to the right and left open wide for new product development and industry cooperation.

This union has been tried before. In the 1970s, schools served hamburger patties that more closely resembled hockey pucks. But, today's school foodservice products are made under tightly controlled manufacturing conditions and are generally pre-cooked to ensure quality and consistency.

Products being served today include ground beef patties, sausages, taco filling and spaghetti sauce, to name a few. Now's the time to lengthen that list.

For sure, there are practical limits to the amount of TSP beef products can tolerate, and the soy folks are the first to confirm this. Knowing that, let's put some checkoff dollars from each industry in one pot and determine if we can cook up even more tasty, nutritious items that'll help put beef protein at the top of the list when these kids start writing their own checks for groceries.

Attracting Young Consumers NCBA says the new guidelines may allow a school to serve a VPP product and not offer an equivalent animal protein dish. That's a legitimate concern. Students who, for religious, cultural or other reasons, desire vegetable protein should be able to get it. At the same time, students who want other proteins should have them as well.

Until early 1998, zinc- and iron-fortified VPP could account for up to 30% of meat, fish, poultry or meat alternatives served in the Food Based Menu Planning program (entree, sides, dessert, drink).

Many schools now use the Nutrient Standard Menu program. Under this plan, nutrients are analyzed over a seven-day period to ensure students receive proper nutrition rather than rely on fortification. Students can receive considerable amounts of soy protein under this plan.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization state that soy protein is equal to animal protein.

Lynn Kosty, NCBA's associate director of food policy, says all proteins aren't created equally. She says beef is rich in vitamins and minerals. This is true, but protein, not vitamins and minerals, is the determining factor.

Specifically, the standard used states soy protein concentrate to have a 0.99 digestibility score, soy protein isolate a 0.92 and beef a 0.92 of a possible 1.00.

Pro Or Con, Have Your Voice Heard Industry and third-party sources agree that the TSP used today has reduced soy flavor and soy aroma. Plus, its fiber portion absorbs meat juices and retains more meat flavor than earlier versions.

School foodservice directors must serve meals that offer good eating experiences, are nutritious and meet federal guidelines, which include dietary fat levels at 30% or lower. VPPs let them reach that goal within budget restraints. So far, beef products that include TSP are working.

Every foodservice director BEEF talked with at this summer's American School Foodservice Association national conference said TSP-enhanced beef products were a boon to keeping food tasting fresh, moist and reducing fat content. They all said kids ate the products and liked them.

These professionals represent thousands of students who are potential long-term beef customers. We must realize the importance of cooperating with industries than can help us in any stage of the marketplace.

The meat and soy industries are cooperating. As things stand now, they're relatively in agreement as to what they'll jointly present to the USDA undersecretary of Food Nutrition and Consumer Services. Some meat industries want to retain nutrient fortification and to use products that are commercially available. The soy industry is amenable to this.

This cooperation may mean adjusting here and there to imperfect solutions. Let's not lose sight of the long term. Instead, let's consider new industry alliances, existing product enhancement and new product development.

Each industry has much at stake. An innovative solution could help these industries develop new customers. It's something to consider. Comments regarding Appendix A are being accepted through Nov. 19. State beef councils and NCBA suggest you direct them to their offices.

A month for injuries

The days are short and it's freezing hard at night. Our kids finished their custom haying jobs and brought their machinery home. For a few days in early September, however, Michael was unable to do any haying, due to illness from a rattlesnake bite on his leg.

He didn't realize it was snakebite at first. He suddenly became weak, dizzy and chilled, thinking he had the worst case of flu ever. He spent two days in bed and several more recovering.

The second day of illness he discovered the tender, feverish knot on his leg and two tiny fang marks. Then he recalled pushing through the brush (getting stray cattle out of the creek bottom in our lower range) the day before he became ill, and having a lot of thorns stuck in his pant legs. He probably was bitten then, and didn't notice.

One thing that may have helped him through it was that he'd been taking antihistamine for allergies, which possibly reduced the effects of his reaction to the snakebite.

He was weak and wobbly during his last haying jobs, but able to run the machinery. I helped him put new shoes on Carolyn's horse in preparation for rounding up cattle, since he was not strong enough to accomplish that task by himself.

Andrea, Carolyn and I started gathering range cattle Sept. 15, bringing in 50 pairs. The next day, Michael rode with us and we put in 115. We rode 11 hours that hot day, and he was feeling the effects by mid-afternoon (weak, with a bad headache).

Andrea went back to a timbered area to find some we'd missed, while Michael, Carolyn and I brought the herd down into our hill pasture. Once there, we spent a few minutes in the shade by the creek, so Michael could put cold water on his head. We then rode up Withington Creek and found a few more cows, getting them down to the pasture before dark.

Andrea had good luck also, bringing several from the area she'd gone back to search. That left only three cows and two calves, which we found the next day.

This was our month for injuries. During the roundup, Carolyn's horse fell with her, twisting and bruising her leg and shoulder, but she was able to continue the ride. I had a branch flip back and hit my eye while charging through the brush on my horse. It didn't injure the surface of the eye much but bruised it badly.

It was so sore I had to keep it closed the rest of that ride, and kept it covered with a makeshift eye patch the next four days while working cattle. It's still not quite right, but it did no permanent damage to vital structures, so I was lucky.

Fall Preconditioning We brought the cows down to the main ranch Sept. 19. The next day, we preg-checked and vaccinated them, vaccinated all the calves and weaned them, and took most of the cows back up to our upper pastures before dark, riding home in the moonlight.

The calves were left in a well-fenced holding pasture. A few days later, we trailed them to a pasture of hayfield aftermath until we ship them later this month.

We tagged the pregnant yearling heifers with their permanent numbers (brisket tags), then took them to another hill pasture. It was definitely time to tag them; four of the 45 had already lost their calfhood eartags (we use eartags on the calves, with their mama's number).

We prefer brisket tags for permanent numbers, since the brisket tags almost never pull out. We've been using them in our cows since 1968, and have only lost four tags in that time. If a cow stays in the herd until she's 16 or 17 (as some of our long-lived crossbred cows do), she still has her tag.

Last week, we hauled a stock trailer load of cull cows to the sale at Rexburg, ID. The cow market has been off a little, but these cows sold very well. Michael and Carolyn drove down the day of the sale and said they looked as good as any that went through that day. It pays to haul them down a day or two before the sale. They always look better and sell better if they have a chance to regain their shrink, fill up again and clean up.

Technology adds old-fashioned calf value

Health and uniformity are both time-proven value drivers in the feeder calf market, simple and powerful as a trusty flyswatter. But they're as useless as flippers on a pig unless health can be verified and uniformity exists in load lots.

"We've always believed in the value of weaning and commingling (for uniformity). Now technology allows us to do that," says Ken Jordan of Jordan Cattle Auction (JCA), which includes markets in three Texas towns and a volume of 160,000-170,000 head each year. He's talking about the electronic eartags that will allow participants in JCA's first Premium Stocker and Feeder Sale (PSFS) this month at San Saba to sell and buy process-verified weaned and preconditioned calves assembled into uniform 50,000-lb. loads of cattle.

The unique bovine social security number in each tamper-proof electronic tag means that each calf can be identified and tracked individually through marketing, feeding and harvest. Information gathered along the way can be shared quickly and easily between each segment that owns the animal via the AgInfoLink system.

"Everyone in the chain can see exactly what happens to the cattle," explains Jordan. From the ranch, that means buyers will be able to see exactly what animal health product each calf received when and how. Health guidelines for PSFS cattle include strict weaning vaccinations, along with a minimum of 45 days weaning prior to the sale.

What's more, the feedlots, veterinarians and universities Jordan enlisted to devise the health protocol also specified animal health products that must be used.

More Consistency "The feeding industry has major problems with quality and consistency. The narrower the range of raw product going in, the narrower the consistency coming out," says Jordan.

Plus, he explains manufacturers of the animal health products used in the program are helping underwrite the cost of the electronic tags. Producers can buy tags in the PSFS program for a buck a head, less than half what the tags currently run in other systems.

Incidentally, tags are the only extra program cost; there is no enrollment fee or added commission.

Beyond the pasture, individual identification means feedlots and packers can share performance data with each other and with the producers of the cattle if they choose to.

"It's process verification," says Jordan. "If we can verify to buyers the cattle have received their vaccinations, it will help sell the program." As it is, he points out more buyers are already paying a premium for weaning and pre-conditioning. As an example, one set of calves following the PSFS health guidelines sold during a regular Jordan auction in August, bringing $6-10/cwt. over the market that day. "There is more demand for these kind of calves than there is supply today," says Jordan.

Of course, health comes at a price. Jordan estimates the cost of the PSFS health program is $5.50-6.50/head, plus the cost of managing calves through weaning, be it on pasture or with supplemental feed. But he explains 1.25-2.00 lbs. of gain per day during the weaning period should more than offset the cost.

"Overall, I think you need a minimum of $4/cwt. equivalent (including gain and less shrink) to get reimbursed for what you're investing in weaning," says Myron Mays of Mays Ranching Co. at Richland Springs, TX. His family began weaning calves in 1983 in the name of more market power. Depending on the rain, he's planning to wean another 150 head to send through the PSFS.

"The biggest advantage I can see is that I can get more for weaning because they will have some uniformity. They will be shaped and sorted," says Mays. In fact, he believes this is the only way producers can get paid for weaning if they don't have enough cattle to fill a load. It also helps larger producers who usually have weight stragglers top and bottom. That may be why Jordan already had 2,300 calves signed up for the program after the first meeting. Soon after, he had 4,500 consigned, and more folks wanting to send calves through the program.

Moving Toward Individual I.D. Besides health and uniform load lots Bob Tabb believes individual identification could become more attractive. He is general manager of Farwell Feeders at Farwell, TX, a 30,000-head yard that is part of AzTx Cattle Co. They've been offering customers electronic individual cattle identification for over a year.

"The thing that grabs your attention when you track cattle individually is the difference in performance of cattle that look pretty much the same. You can't tell by looking at them," says Tabb. As an example, he says in one pen of cattle some might gain 5 lbs. and some 2 lbs., but there is no way to know without individual performance.

Really, Mays says it all boils down to what buyers can't pay when they know nothing about the calves. He explains, "When cattle go through the chain, the dead ones, the sick ones, the economically unpredictable ones are figured into the price of all calves, and it comes back to haunt you."

Things looking great toward 2000

The cattle market in September held steady most of the month. Fed cattle in the Amarillo feedlot area remained in the $65-66/cwt. range, ending with some slight strength the final week.

Feeder cattle and calves didn't show much price improvement in September. In general, the market lost about $1 from the previous month. Considering the time of the year, however, it was negligible. As has been quite common in the last few months, heavier weight feeders have been scarce, as have price reports.

Production Concentration Last month, we examined the degree of concentration at the feedlot level. Now, let's look at beef cow operations.

The average beef cow herd size in the U.S. is only 39.1 cows per operation. In 1998, there were 855,860 beef cow operations, of which 79% had less than 50 head. While most of these small cattle herds are spread all over the nation, the larger operations are quite concentrated.

The proportion of these smaller ranches is declining each year and their share of the U.S. beef herd is also decreasing. The semi-large operations - those with 200-499 beef cows - are increasing both in number and importance.

Last year, less than 1% of U.S. beef operations had 500 cows or more, but these accounted for 15% of the nation's beef cow herd. The number of larger operations has remained constant but is gaining substantially in importance. There were only 5,485 ranches of this size, and 42% of them are in Texas, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming (see table U.S. Beef Cattle Operations).

Lighter Weight Placements Cattle and calves on feed for the slaughter market in U.S. feedlots with a capacity of 1,000 head or more totaled 9.53 million head on Sept. 1. That's up 5% from a year ago and 3% from the previous month.

Major percentage gains were recorded in Washington, Idaho, Iowa, Colorado and Nebraska. In contrast, substantial percentage decreases were reported in South Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The largest absolute decline on feed numbers was in Texas which fell 50,000 head or 2%.

Fed cattle and calf marketings in August were 2.03 million head, 4% above last year's level but slightly below August 1997. Eight states recorded an increase in marketings, with a distribution very similar to the on-feed statistics.

Placements of cattle and calves into feedlots in August totaled 2.41 million head - 17% above 1998 and 33% higher than July. Only New Mexico and South Dakota reported lower placements than a year ago. Almost all the other states recorded double-digit percentage increases.

Cattle and calf placements by weight groups shifted to the lighter animals in August. Each weight group recorded a 13-16% gain in numbers over a year ago, while the lightest class - those less than 600 lbs. - rose 29%. Given this huge placement increase, these lighter calves suggest a longer feeding period and less of a fed cattle marketing problem until next year.

Market Direction Is Largely Up The fed cattle market will likely stay at its current level through the rest of the year. There may be some weakness as early winter comes, but nothing too drastic. Prices should hold up well into 2000.

The exceptionally large placements of the last two months could cause some oversupply problems by the latter part of the new year's first quarter. After that, it will depend on feedlot attitudes during the next couple of months.

Feeder cattle and calves might display some loss in market strength as heavy fall sales begin. With fairly strong fed cattle prices and a continued profitable feedlot outlook ahead, chances of any major weakness in these kinds seems unlikely.

Moving into 2000, things look even better. Supplies of feeders will be down and the momentum from the previous year will help keep prices firm.

Wide-Angle Value

It was Valentines Day in 1994 when Wes and Carolyn Peterson of Breckenridge, MO, came to an unsettling realization as they watched their calves march through the auction ring.

"We were doing everything folks said you should do, then losing all control once they hit the auction ring. We realized we had to do something different. It was silly to plan the health and the genetics, then lose control of what we were doing," says Carolyn.

Moreover, 24 years into the construction of Peterson Cattle Co., Wes explains, "I was embarrassed to think I was at a point where I was selling feeder calves and all I could tell anyone about them was that they sold well and sold to the same buyers. We're quickly approaching a time when cattle can't stand on that alone."

As the Petersons evaluated options, they came across the Gelbvieh Alliance offered by the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA). It included a pricing grid negotiated with Monfort that seemed to fit their crossbred Gelbvieh and Angus cattle, the opportunity to share risk with participating feedlots, and the chance to gather carcass data.

"Originally, I said the main thing that should come out of it is that we learn something about our cattle and get some meaningful data back that we could understand," explains Wes. "I thought even if we just broke even it would be good."

Selling 50% ownership in their calves to the feedlot, with a 2% pencil shrink at the ranch, the cattle have done more than balance the ledger.

"The pen last year left here as 638-lb. feeders priced at $78/cwt. We increased that value to a little over $83/cwt.," says Wes.

Since the Gelbvieh Alliance began in 1995, AGA executive director Don Schiefelbein says 165,000 head have earned an average premium of just over $9/head; the most valuable 25% of the cattle earned an average premium of about $30/head.

"This was a tool I thought would appeal to our customers, and if not draw them here, at least make the ones already feeding here more comfortable with what they were doing," says Tom Holtorf, manager of Schramm Feedyard at Yuma, CO. He began using the Gelbvieh Alliance four years ago. Today 90% of the cattle in his 16,000-head yard are marketed that way.

Building Opportunity Schiefelbein says offering producers more information and earning potential was the impetus behind the alliance.

"When it first started, there were very few alliances out there and about 100 percent of the fed cattle were trading on a cash basis," he says. Plus, AGA was looking for a way cattle feeders could receive a premium for the Gelbvieh crossbred calves they were paying more to own on the front end.

Building breed acceptance and premium opportunity is also why AGA opened the alliance to all cattle in 1996, not just those with Gelbvieh genetics.

"Whether you like it or not, the more cattle you have to offer a packer, the more apt you are to get the best pricing grid. And, the better the grid, the more apt you are to get more cattle," says Schiefelbein.

Besides, it helps Gelbvieh breeders find out how their genetics fit the industry.

"We wanted to know where we ranked relative to the competition," says Schiefelbein. "From a competitive standpoint, we feel like the more information you have, the better prepared you can be. We have such a strong focus on complementary crossbreeding with our breed that it made sense to see how our genetics compared to other cattle."

Along the way, the alliance's evolving data base is turning up a host of beneficial industry insights. By tracking the genetics, implant protocol, days on feed, along with the value of feedlot and carcass performance, AGA can document answers to some of the most vexing questions posed by commercial producers.

For instance, the Gelbvieh data base says the added value in the pasture adds up to an extra $173/head. In the feedlot, added value potential is $83. But, at carcass level today, $40 is the most a producer can hope for on average. Schiefelbein says the bottom line is that it helps producers understand they can't afford to chase carcass premiums at the cost of reproductive efficiency.

"The most obvious thing we have learned is something I think most commercial producers already know," says Schiefelbein. "As we evaluate the most effective breed combinations for the feedlot and the packing house, it boils down to cattle that are half English and half Continental."

In fact, about two-thirds of the top 25% of cattle in the Gelbvieh data base for total feedlot and carcass value are English X Continental halfblood; two-thirds of the least valuable are high percentage English and high percentage Continental.

Extra Value Today Currently, the Gelbvieh Alliance offers producers a conventional grid aimed at balanced grade and yield, and a grid slanted toward cattle with more marbling (Table 1).

Plus, Steve Munger of Eagle Pass Ranch at Highmore, SD, points out, "The nice thing about the Gelbvieh grid is that you get 52 cents/cwt. added to your base price up front, which is a pretty good stroke right there. You start out $4-5 per head ahead of the game."

Munger has used the Gelbvieh grid for several years, marketing 500-1,000 head across it each year. Eagle Pass is primarily a purebred operation, though, marketing 400 Gelbvieh and Angus bulls annually.

"This is the alliance we feel like we fit best. We don't have to specialize or worry about having source-verified cattle," says Holtorf. Besides the non-conformance allowance, he explains the Gelbvieh grids fit a wide variety of cattle. Plus, he says using the alliance is simple and economic.

In fact, participating in the Gelbvieh Alliance is as easy as picking up the phone a week before cattle are ready to ship and telling them you want to sell cattle on one of their grids. There are no genetic or management requirements. The cost is $1/head - 75 cents if the producer or feeder provides complete feedyard closeout information.

Besides access to the grid, that price nets producers individual grade and yield data and feeding performance if it is provided to the alliance. For another $1/head, data is matched to specific animals through tag transfer at the packing plant. For a total cost of $5/head, producers get comprehensive individual data, including ribeye size, fat thickness and marbling score.

"The cost of data and participation are things I think producers need to look at harder when they send cattle to these alliance programs. Often times, they spend all of their time comparing grids, but don't consider the true participation cost. When you factor that in, it can significantly change the value of various alliances," says Schiefelbein.

Added Value Tomorrow Like the data base itself, Schiefelbein says the lion's share of producer value in their alliance comes with having the information to make improvements.

"The bottom line to all of these alliances should be collecting data, proving sires and building a more consistent product," says Munger. Eagle Pass began collecting carcass data at the beginning of the decade.

"There were a lot of things we were assuming about some sire groups that proved to be untrue once we started carcass testing," says Munger. "We found that most of the bulls were in a big cluster on carcass performance, with a few that fell out on top and on the bottom. The information allows you to use more of those bulls on the top and to identify bulls you need to take out of your program. That's been the biggest advantage."

But, information must be understandable to be useful. "We decided we needed a solutions-oriented report rather than an information-oriented report," says Schiefelbein. "Too many times, the industry just confuses producers. We were as guilty as anyone until two years ago. In reality, getting all of that individual information can be like getting all your child's individual test scores at the end of the semester, rather than an overall grade that tells you how they are performing."

The Gelbvieh Alliance offers all of the individual data, but also offers easy-to-digest performance snapshots that indicate how the cattle did relative to the industry's target of 70% Choice and Prime cattle, 70% Yield Grade 1-2, and no outliers. They also provide a pen report card with an economic summary and overall letter grade for the value of dressing percent, quality grade, yield grade and ability to fit the packer's box.

"If you put things in terms of dollars and cents, people understand more quickly the difference between good and bad," says Schiefelbein. "Producers can quickly look and see that their cattle did well on quality grade, but poorly on yield grade and fitting the box, as example. So, when they buy bulls next time, they know they need to place added emphasis on muscling and leanness."

Munger sums it up this way: "The premium is there on the grid, and you might as well capture. If you don't, the packer will without paying for it."

A reader query on E. coli

Q At the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), William Laegried, DVM, showed a reduction in E. coli O157:H7 shedding from 52% to 18% for cattle on hay only rations at the end of seven days. (See September BEEF, page 54.) What is the significance of this study compared to the Idaho study? Wouldn't it appear the economic and health drawbacks from Laegried's study weigh heavily against hay feeding?

Steve Helyesen North Dakota

A It is difficult to discuss William Laegried's study since it has not yet been published. In a telephone conversation, Laegried said the health problems became so acute they had to terminate the hay feeding.

Regardless, E. coli O157:H7 is an issue we must address in whatever way possible, and we should not rule anything out. The real question is, "Does hay feeding work?" One thing for certain is that the early media speculation that three days of hay feeding could eliminate shedding is wrong. In the MARC study, they went seven days and still had substantial shedding.

A University of Idaho study conducted by microbiologist Caroline Bohach reported hay feeding actually increased shedding. Why the contrast? I don't know. Indeed, this is an issue that sharply divides various research groups.

The Fundamental Issue Due to the media coverage, hay feeding has been the focal point, but there is a far more fundamental question that may hold the answer. Unfortunately, there's total disagreement between researchers in this area.

There are researchers who believe ruminants are the natural host of E. coli O157:H7. Others, such as Bohach, believe E. coli O157:H7 is an environmental organism - an organism that can survive and replicate outside of the animal.

Dale Hancock, a veterinary epidemiologist with Washington State University, has found E. coli O157:H7 in a broad array of feeds. Most important, Hancock has found that O157 can readily replicate in feeds (when moisture content is above 25%).

Hancock also routinely finds O157 in water, and believes water is the primary route of infection (more later). He also found O157 in a number of species: deer, horses, dogs and birds. That's in addition to sheep, dairy cattle and beef cattle.

In his intensive studies of cattle, Hancock found that infections normally last about 60 days. What I find highly important is that he says he has not identified cattle that are persistent carriers. They acquire O157, which passes through as a transient infection.

Hancock finds the number of cattle testing positive usually triples during summer. This is consistent with his theory that water is the primary source of infection. During summer, water consumption increases, thereby increasing the intake of infective cells.

Published MARC research has shown a percentage of calves on most ranches to be infected. Meanwhile, others that are negative have antibody titers for O157. This would be consistent with Hancock's transient infection theory.

The University of Idaho's Bohach also subscribes to the transient infection theory. In a previous study, she infected sheep and then serially slaughtered them over time. In examining the digestive tracts she found no particular site where E. coli O157:H7 colonized. As time increased, O157 tended to be found farther down the digestive tract.

What About Hay Vs. Grain? In the opinions of several researchers (but by no means all), the type of ration probably doesn't mean much. More important would be the E. coli O157:H7 content of the ration (or water supply). Cattle become infected and over time the infection dissipates.

Hay, which is dry, would not allow E. coli to replicate, and therefore would be much less likely to infect or re-infect. The popping or micronizing of grains would certainly kill any E. coli present, as would steam flaking. However, the moisture added by steam flaking would allow E. coli to grow if another feed were added to a ration that contained E. coli.

Hancock has found O157 in barley. Tempering (soaking in water) is a common practice with barley, and would clearly be contraindicated as far as E. coli is concerned.

Epidemiologically, there is evidence that type of ration is not necessarily a factor. As mentioned, MARC has identified ranch calves positive with O157. Likewise, Hancock has found an equal number of positives in dairy cattle on forage rations as well as range cows. A Canadian researcher, Joyce Vandonkersgoed, has likewise reported O157 positives in cull range cows at equal or greater levels than cows on grain rations.

Bottom Line There is very little known for certain but it appears to me Bohach's theory that O157 is an environmental bacteria is most likely correct. The question is how to reduce the infection rate in farm animals? Hancock believes that chlorinating water systems can reduce but not eliminate infection rates. Bohach is working on a vaccine.

Ultimately, the public must realize that ground meat must be thoroughly cooked - just as pork must be thoroughly cooked to prevent Trichina and egg yolks must be cooked hard to prevent Salmonella poisoning. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service veterinarians will privately tell you that short of irradiation, there is no way to guarantee ground meat does not contain pathogenic bacteria.

The best of beef

Gloria Bradley, Naperville, IL, took top honors at the 23rd annual National Beef Cook-Off, Sept. 25, in Omaha, NE. Bradley won $40,000 and "Best of Beef" for her recipe "Fiesta Roast Beef with Tropical Fruit Relish."

Sixteen finalists competed in two categories, eight each in Ground Beef and Prepared Beef. Recipes had to be prepared in 30 minutes or less and contain no more than six ingredients.

Winning the ground beef category was "Caesar Salad Beef Burgers on Garlic Crostini," created by Jason Boulanger, Williston, VT.

Each category winner received $10,000 with an additional $30,000 for the overall "Best of Beef" winner.

Bradley's winning recipe (pictured above):

Preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

1 1/2 to 2 lbs. fully cooked beef tri-tip roast

2 cans (8 oz. each) tropical fruit salad in light syrup

1 large orange

2 to 3 tsp. spicy brown mustard

1/4 to 1/2 cup diced green bell pepper

salt and pepper

orange slices (optional)

1. Remove roast from package; place in microwave-safe dish. Transfer 3 to 4 Tbsp. liquid from package to small saucepan; set aside. Discard any remaining liquid. Cover roast and microwave on high 7-10 minutes or until heated through. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, drain fruit salad reserving 3 Tbsp. of the syrup. Cut up any large pieces of fruit; set aside. Grate 1 tsp. peel from orange; set aside. Cut orange in half. Squeeze juice from half orange; peel and chop orange sections from remaining half.

3. Combine reserved syrup, orange juice, mustard, orange peel, pepper sauce; salt and pepper as desired in medium bowl; whisk until blended. Measure 1/4 cup of the orange juice mixture; add to beef liquid in saucepan. Set aside. Add reserved fruit, chopped orange and bell pepper to remaining orange juice mixture in bowl; mix well. Cover and refrigerate.

4. Carve roast across the grain into thin slices. Bring mixture in saucepan to a boil; remove from heat. Arrange beef and fruit relish side by side on platter. Spoon hot sauce over beef, as desired. Garnish with orange slices, if desired.

The 16 finalist recipes are showcased in a new "National Beef Cook-Off, 1999 Prize Winning Recipes" brochure. To receive a free copy call 800/848-9088, or write Prize Winning Recipes '99, ANCW, P.O. Box 3881, Englewood, CO 80155.

The next National Beef Cook-Off will take place in 2001 in Tucson, AZ. For rules visit www.beef.org or write to the address listed above.

Water Rights Warrior

In the high-ceilinged living room of Mary Burke's ranch house overlooking a lush irrigated meadow near the Wenatchee National Forest, sits a simple, four-row bookcase. The top shelf is wedged full of aged and well-used reference books, some of them 100 years old.

Burke selects a green, gold-embossed volume and carries it to a waiting chair being warmed near an east window by the early morning light.

The book, a compilation of 19th century U.S. presidential papers and messages, is hardly recreational reading. This, however, is how she often spends her rare, free mornings - when husband Pat and their sons Jed and Joe can spare her from working cattle or changing irrigation water on their ranch near Cle Elum, WA.

Necessity has made it so. Somewhere within the covers of imposing books like this one might lie a nugget of salvation for a Washington rancher, apple grower or vegetable farmer. She's searching for the documentation or legal precedent that will help guarantee an owner's right to water, and his livelihood.

Agriculture Takes The Brunt Agriculture - cattle, sheep, orchards, vegetable farming and hay - used to be king in this arid part of the Pacific Northwest. Today, its very existence is deeply threatened. At issue is that basic building block of life - water. Agriculture has many older and senior rights to water rights and uses; and government - thirsty for additional water for urban use, salmon habitat or just simple control - wants to take it away.

It's a fight in which Burke became a frontline soldier 30 years ago when the state of Washington began aggressively adopting water and environmental laws. If you owned a ranch, she says, you had to get involved simply to defend what you already owned.

Since then, her involvement in water rights issues - and, by logical extension, property rights - has grown to be an avocation of immense proportions. Her motivation, intellect, preparation and articulation of the issues have won her respect and admiration from friend and foe alike.

She testifies frequently before courts and state and federal agencies on water issues. She both leads and supports a myriad of water rights and property rights causes. Her name and reputation are nationally recognized. Her services are in demand not only from agriculturists, but urbanites, developers and industrial parks.

She sits on numerous boards and holds or has held major offices in both the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Washington Cattlemen's Association. She's often asked by attorneys to consult with their clients on water rights issues. All this, from a rancher without a law degree.

Both Burke's friends and opponents facetiously refer to her as the "Water Witch" because of her tenacity in defending historical water interests. If there is real historical water there, Burke will document it, they say, an allusion to the art of finding water with willow sticks.

She does it through painstaking research, spending tedious hours combing stale records in the basements of government buildings and sifting through boxes of old papers brought to her by desperate farms and businesses trying to prove their legal right to water.

"Most of the time it's not a matter of finding something they didn't know they owned, but a confirmation of something they knew they owned," says Burke of her research into title histories. "What I do is a historical support for what already is truth. Today, bureaucrats need to have pieces of paper because government doesn't believe its citizens any more."

A Water Law Visionary "Mary is a visionary," says Greg McElroy, a Seattle attorney and one of the nation's top legal experts on water law. "She was the first person I know of who, in the mid-1980s, was saying that we had to be addressing both water rights regulation and water quality regulation. Most lawyers thought that idea was nuts because the two worlds were completely separate.

"Now, everyone agrees with Mary. Even if you can protect your legal right to use and appropriate water, it isn't worth anything unless your livestock can drink from the streams," McElroy says.

Larry Brown, superintendent of the Ellensburg Water Co., says "Mary is one of the most knowledgeable people on Western water law, and water in general, particularly senior water right, riparian water right and stockwater. She knows more than most attorneys I know. In fact, she educates lawyers as well as lawmakers."

Tom Fitzsimmons is director of the Department of Ecology, a state agency charged with water oversight in the state of Washington. Thus, he's often been on the opposite sides of issues with Burke. Yet, he says: "Mary has always been focused on the practical consequences of any policy under discussion. As a result, she has helped keep all parties fully aware of what might happen to real people. This has added constant reality to the water negotiations."

Burke grew up as a Masterson on a purebred Angus ranch homesteaded by her greatgrandfather in 1880. With three years of college toward a career as an English teacher, she left college in 1956 to marry Pat Burke, whom she decided was more interesting than teaching.

Indicative of how important water issues and cattle are in her life, Burke describes her move to Pat's family ranch as "moving eight miles from the Teanaway Watershed to the Swauk Watershed and marrying a different colored cow."

Today, their compromise shows; son Jed buys Hereford and Angus bulls to use on the family's 400 commercial Hereford cows. Generally, they run the calves to the yearling stage. The Burkes' ranch also includes a tree farm and timber operation.

The ranch consists of two places, combinations of deeded land and government and private leases. On the "lower place," part of the acreage is rangeland, and part is irrigated from a Bureau of Land Reclamation project, the Kittitas Reclamation District. The home ranch, on the other hand, is on a stream called Swauk Creek.

"That's one of the reasons Pat and I have done so much water work - because we have so many different kinds of water rights," she says. Historian And Activist

Burke projects tremendous energy and confidence. Her manner and speech are reflective of her hectic lifestyle and the issues she deals with daily. She's not a small talker. She listens intently. Her speech is quick and efficient, complete, precise and clear. Her recall of facts, figures, dates and people is exceptional.

She is also humble, at times dismissive of her role and accomplishments. "You have to do what you have to do to keep your business profitable," she says. She claims her value in water law circles is because "I have all the history of the area because I was already here when Lewis and Clark came through."

At 64, Burke falls well short of being a contemporary of that pair of 18th century explorers. But, there is no refuting the historical perspective she carries, and its value to the water rights effort.

"Mary is the historical knowledge base of water issues within the state of Washington and even within the nation," says Karla Kay Fullerton, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.

"She's listened to very strongly by both sides not only for her understanding and ability to lead through an issue, but her knowledge of how it started in the first place. The historical perspective allows you to get directly to the root of the problem and fix it properly," Fullerton says.

Fullerton says Burke's influence is such that she almost single-handedly critiqued the Governor's Water Rights Bill in this year's legislature. The bill would have essentially taken control of all water in the state and turned Western water law on its ear, Fullerton says.

"Mary worked hours and hours to find the arguments to not let that thing pass," Fullerton says. "The only reason we had a seat at that table at all was that they knew Mary's reputation. They knew that if Mary wasn't a part of the discussion, the bill was doomed to certain failure."

War Over Water While many parts of the U.S. struggle with water issues, nowhere is the battle as intense as in the Pacific North-west. Interests seeking additional water for cities and wildlife habitat are proposing radical changes that would devastate agriculture and communities.

"Whomever controls the water, controls the land. It really is a property rights issue," Burke says.

Basic quantity water law is simple, she says, with two primary components. One is that water runs downhill. The second is that water laws are based on a time line. "First in time, first in right" has been the cornerstone tenet of Western water law from the start.

Today, however, urban interests vie against rural interests, East against West, preservationists against responsible use. The attacks often come not head-on but from the side - water quality statutes, for instance, that essentially strip users of the use of their land by placing unreasonable requirements and restrictions on runoff.

The problem is that politics no longer run on legal logic, but political correctness, Burke says.

"So you end up with new terms and adaptive science that don't fit basic laws. You end up with this complicated mess that's very difficult for anyone to deal with. Everyone's confused and everyone's backed into a box and they don't know where to go," Burke says.

Those who generally bear the largest burdens of these laws are typically those with the least voice or without the resources to fight government.

"There are farmers and ranchers on the Methow River in central Washington who have irrigated for over 100 years. This summer, the National Marine and Fisheries Service told them they couldn't turn on their water because it was needed for salmon, and haven't allowed them to do so," Burke says.

"These are small operations that can't afford a $25,000 fine and they don't have the money to fight. Their places, orchards and little farms are all dried up. It's a total lack of recognition of these water rights and a total lack of concern for these people by our federal government," she says.

Government Attitude Is An Obstacle Burke decries a federal attitude from the East that governs the West as though it were still a territory.

"How else can the Endangered Species Act be applied one way in the West and another in the East?" she asks. "I don't see anyone telling New York City to return to its primitive condition because they don't have any Atlantic salmon. But, they'll do it west of the Mississippi, and they're doing it to the Pacific Northwest."

Burke sees reason for optimism, although the change is coming slowly. Once major industrial producers important to world trade are affected, pressure will begin to mount against such policies, she says.

Her advice to producers is simple - protect yourself. "You have to prove you exist to protect yourself from Executive Orders like the one that locked up 1.7 million acres as wilderness in Utah a few years ago (Escalante National Park).

"Look up all your title and water histories. Get all the family, especially the older people, to write down anything they can remember about their rights to use their land, to cut their timber, to use their water and minerals. Then, take those to a lawyer to confirm their legality and file them in the court house," she says.

It's this information, says Seattle attorney Greg McElroy, that can make or break a water case in court "because it gives credence to what the family history is on how the property was used. This historical property information is the kind of information that a lot of government programs and a lot of modern regulators would like to sweep under the rug," McElroy says.

The battles are winnable if producers prepare and unite, she says. In 1990 and 1996, at the request of Jim Courtney, then president of the Montana Stockgrowers' Association, Burke conducted a series of water rights seminars for producers, lawmakers and county commissioners in the Big Sky State, just as she has done in her own state. Courtney's decision proved to be both fortuitous andforesighted.

Shortly thereafter, Vice President Al Gore boasted that the government intended by Executive Order to do to the Missouri River what it had done to the Escalante in Utah. Montanans rallied and the concept was withdrawn.

"Courtney and his fellow Montanans did their homework and were united," Burke says. "They had proof of their existence and what they owned, and they won. That's the key - being prepared, active and united," she says.