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Articles from 1998 In December


Dream Calving Barns

Ever wish your outdated calving barn would get hit by a tornado so you could build the barn of your dreams? That's sort of what happened to Dan and Pat Currie, Harding Land and Cattle Company, Terry, MT.

The Curries designed and built a calving barn in 1989 to replace an old converted chicken house facility with broken down corrals. Just seven years later, a tornado-like thunderstorm hit and nearly leveled their dream barn.

So in 1996 they rebuilt the barn of their dreams. This time, 4- x 6-ft. posts were replaced with 6- x 6-ft. posts, sunk an additional couple of feet and anchored with plenty of extra concrete. The truss structure was also reinforced in hopes of withstanding future storms.

The Curries planned and built the calving barn just north of the ranch house, at the top of a small rise. That location allows them to see cows and calves from both an upstairs and downstairs set of house windows. It's a small thing, Dan admits, but it's handy when calving season gets hectic.

The corrugated steel barn is 30-ft. wide and 150-ft. long; 120 ft. of that is open and divided into ten 12-ft. pens (jugs). In front of each jug (facing south toward the house) is a 5-ft.-wide alley connected by swinging gates located directly in front of each of the jugs. That alley provides additional holding and corral space for cows and is also the confinement alley leading to the hospital room and pulling stall. This area is under the 120-ft. roof span.

The other 30-ft. length at the east end of the barn is divided into a 10- x 30-ft. veterinary room and a 20- x 30-ft. calf pulling room.

The facility was designed based on the Curries' experience with Montana State University and the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Center at Miles City, where Pat (now retired) was a range scientist and research leader.

"Animal welfare was a big part of this facility," Pat says. "When you look at it you can see we're giving animals the best care possible.

"We wanted a good facility to help protect people, too," he says. "If we have to pull a distressed cow at birth, she's mad. We need to protect our employees. That ultimately leads to lower workers' comp premiums."

Along with the calving facility is a corral complex consisting of four sorting pens, sorting alleys, loading chute and a squeeze chute system.

At the facility, calves go through the chute and a calf table is used for processing. Pat says they'll handle all 1,100 head of cows in five groups with just three people and so far have never lost a calf at branding or processing time. In addition, they can schedule processing of each group to effectively distribute the ranch workload. This same complex is used in the fall to process all their bulls and cows in their total herd health program.

When it comes to construction, Bob and Kathy Lee could write a book. Since they bought their Judith Gap, MT, ranch in 1967, they've built every facility on the operation, including their house.

But frankly, Bob says, their pride and joy is the calving barn they built in 1992. "It's 110-percent better than our old 30- x 40-ft. leaky shed. Our new facility is easier on the cows and us," he says.

The pole barn is 48-ft. wide and 96-ft. long. At an out-of-pocket cost of $18,000, the facility is covered with corrugated steel with a few extra touches.

"We added plywood sheeting under the roof tin to stop condensation," Bob explains. "We also put plywood on the north side, where the individual jugs (pens) are, to help keep cows and calves warmer." Sidewalls are 10-ft. high.

The unit's roof has a vented ridge cap and sliding windows on the south side for peak ventilation. There are also ten, 3- x 8-ft. fiberglass skylights.

At the end of the unit is a 10- x 16-ft. warming room wired with an intercom system to the house. The room also has a calf-warming crate, chalkboard, desk and computer for calving records, refrigerator for supplies, sofa and, of course, heat.

In addition to the warming room, the north side of the facility has five 10- x 10-ft. jugs and a straw storage area. In front of the jugs is a 4-ft.-wide alley with 20-ft. steel panels that allow the Lees to move cows to the jugs, birthing area or the pulling area. On the other side of the panels is a 33-ft.-wide precalving area. In the corner is a 16- x 16-ft. calving zone with a head catch used to assist cows with problems.

Where possible, swinging gates and panels that separate the loafing area and the jugs have easy-roll wheels attached so they can be moved quickly and quietly, Bob says.

"We don't allow any yelling, whips or hot shots," Bob says of how they handle their 400-cow herd. "We use sticks, paddles and brooms. Cattle seem to handle easier that way."

Watershed Survives

The 40,000-acre Alameda Creek Watershed lies east of San Francisco. About 32,000 acres of it are grazed, though relatively few beef producers depend on it for their livelihood.

Yet this watershed is at the center of a historic public lands use agreement. Today, ranches in the Alameda Creek Watershed are the focus of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point)-oriented land management and cooperation among lessees, water department customers and agencies overseeing the San Francisco area water supply.

The Cryptosporidium Scare Water from the San Antonio and Calaveras reservoirs in this watershed is mixed with water from other sources and delivered to 2.3 million residents expecting some of the cleanest municipal water in the country. Like any municipality or water district, problems can occur. The concern that affects the water supply of San Francisco is Cryptosporidium parvum.

C. parvum is a tiny protozoal parasite that escapes many water filtering and treatment programs. It can cause gastrointestinal illness in humans and other mammals. It's the same parasite that caused more than 70 deaths from the Milwaukee, WI, water supply in 1993.

For years, C. parvum has been continually monitored by the San Francisco Water Department. In February 1997, however, it became a hot issue.

"It wasn't that Crypto was all of a sudden discovered in the water supply," says Sheila Barry, watershed management specialist with the Alameda County Resource Conservation District (ACRCD). "There had been a concern for some time about Crypto in drinking water. Several activists had been pushing San Francisco officials to examine ways to eliminate risks and update water plants."

C. parvum can be transmitted into a water system via feces from young calves dropping onto grazing areas and in the reservoir. Deer, elk and feral pigs carry it, too. Once in a water system in sufficient numbers, C. parvum oocysts can create life-threatening, even fatal, cases of infection when water is consumed by persons with suppressed immune systems. This includes the very young, the elderly, cancer victims and those with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

A 30-Day Deadline Sparked by news accounts of C. parvum contamination in Milwaukee, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) considered canceling grazing leases in the Alameda Watershed, effectively removing all cattle quickly. The intent was to significantly lower the risk of C. parvum being transmitted via municipal water.

Local ranchers sprung to action. Activist groups called for a review of grazing practices. The cancellation notice quickly created new activists in the livestock community.

"We had only 30 days to develop an action plan," Barry says. "We needed massive input from ranchers and resource professionals to address SFPUC commissioners and Mayor Willie Brown."

Resource people included officials from the state's fish and game department, parks department, University of California specialists and a veterinarian with a specialty in environmental health. All wrote letters supporting grazing.

"At the time, the ones speaking against cattle grazing were representatives from Clean Water Action, ACT UP Golden Gate and the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club," Barry says. "Basically, they were saying, 'we want clean water and if that means taking the cattle off the land, that's what you have to do.' We wanted to show them there are ways for cattle to graze and still have clean water."

George Gough, director of government affairs for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA), knew the long-term effect to the state's beef industry was serious if watershed grazing were outlawed. He hired a lobbyist to help CCA.

Tackling The Problem Resources and experts in place, the beef industry team began a series of strategy meetings and discussions with the SFPUC. So did opponents.

Cattlemen presented substantial, factual testimony supporting grazing. Even if removing cattle would prevent Crypto, they argued, other mammalian species carry it. Without controlling all wild animals, it wasn't possible to get the Crypto count to zero, they argued. Cattle grazing also controls underbrush, an important factor in fire control.

"For these and other reasons, it was apparent that an extreme solution could create other problems," says E. Dennis Normandy, SFPUC commissioner. He put the issue on a fast track, scheduled hearings and encouraged both sides to arrive at a workable solution.

The Process Works Six months' of discussions, hearings and expert testimony between producers, activists and SFPUC commissioners brought home the point that creating zero risk of C. parvum wasn't possible. It was time to develop a plan to manage that risk.

Education played a big role. Ranchers organized a tour of the watershed, inviting SFPUC personnel and activists to visit and actually see how watersheds work and how the ecosystem is intertwined. It changed minds as well as perceptions.

"I went into this with the idea of getting rid of cattle," says Tony Leone, a representative of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club. Living with AIDS, Leone is severely at risk of death with a Crypto infection.

At first, Leone was in favor of abruptly removing cattle off the watershed, but the hearings and discussion swayed his thinking.

"It seemed reasonable that you could control the domestic animals in the watershed, set up non-grazing zones and do some of the other management techniques. By doing these things, the risk of Crypto could be lowered," he says.

Leone says he learned that cattle help keep the population of elk in check and the risk that feral pigs create. He also learned that the ranchers were genuinely concerned - not just about their livelihoods.

The Plan Was Successful With a greater understanding by all parties, a science-based plan was developed that addressed everyone's needs. A HACCP plan was developed that called for management adjustments by ranchers and increased diligence of the water department and SFPUC.

The Alameda Creek Watershed Grazing Resources Management Plan was authored with the help of ranchers, ACRCD, SFPUC, City of San Francisco legal staff and a consulting firm. It addresses pathogens such as C. parvum, watershed fire protection, management practices and leasing strategies. Plan components include:

* Non-calf buffers to be maintained around reservoirs and streams with riparian habitat.

* Calving limited to August through October. Calving must be 80% complete by September 30, done by October 31.

* Tap springs, creating water supplies away from reservoirs.

* Locate supplemental feeding areas away from stream channels, flood plains or sensitive areas.

* Lessees maintain a herd health program for prevention and care of general parasitic disease.

* Stocking rates for each parcel achieve a target residual dry matter (RDM) of 1,000 lbs./acre.

* Establish an on-going program to reduce feral pig population.

In addition, the grazing management strategy includes required structural protection measures specifically designed to reduce the risk of viable pathogen discharges into watershed streams and reservoirs. Key components include:

* Fenced reservoir buffers restricting all cattle access.

* Stream zone buffers restricting all cattle access.

* Fenced riparian pastures restricting access by calves.

* Fenced stock water ponds on certain water courses to prevent direct cattle access.

* Watershed protection areas open to general grazing by cows and calves. These areas are developed with water collection and distribution improvements to disperse cattle away form riparian pastures.

* Development of off-stream cattle and wildlife water improvements to disperse deer, elk and feral pigs away from key water and riparian areas.

Working Together Robert Nielsen is a member of the family-owned TN Cattle Co., Inc. He runs a stocker operation with a few mother cows in the watershed. He likes the plan.

"A lot of management things came out of this. Some were in the making already," Nielsen says. "But, the biggest thing is that we have designated fields for calving. There's been a lot of work on spring development to keep cows out of riparian areas. These are tools we've used for a long time, but there are a few more restrictions," he says.

Most of the tools that have come from the management plan are things ranchers can live with, not just on public land, but private as well, Nielsen adds.

New lessees are also required to adhere to specific selection criteria.

"The criteria required are similar to what one might meet if applying for a job," says Tim Koopman, watershed keeper and a part of a fourth-generation family cattle operation that borders the watershed."

It includes a summary of requirements and addresses resource operation and management expertise. It also includes financial statements and letters of references from other landlords and financial institutions. All but two of the ranchers currently leasing were selected in October of this year to lease again for five years.

"I'd say the leasing process was the best under all circumstances," Nielsen says. "San Francisco is looking for tenants who will be good land stewards. They developed a system that was as fair as possible."

When developing the leasing criteria, competitive bidding was removed from the process and replaced by a flat fee on animal units per acre. This created a more equitable process, even though it reduced San Francisco's income by about $200,000 per year.

The Signing Sets A Precedent Last August an accord was signed, setting a precedent for cooperation among officials, beef producers and city residents.

"Water quality is an issue that will be with us for a long time," says CCA's Gough. "In California, 85 percent of our water passes through rangeland. There are days when water quality seems to be the only issue."

Normandy says staying focused on key issues keeps discussion processes moving and brings diverse groups together.

"You can't lose focus," he says. "We're supposed to protect our water supply. But, there were no 100-percent solutions. There are other mammals besides cattle that inhabit this watershed and pose a Crypto risk. We stayed the course and came to agreement."

It's this focus that's appreciated by cattlemen and others. Leone, the activist, says the final plan is a good compromise.

"Crypto is still a risk, but we have to determine what risk is acceptable," Leone says. "At this point, we don't know how much Crypto is required to cause the disease in humans. It seems a much greater priority to protect the watershed and continue working on the Crypto issue than to create more restrictive policies."

The number of Crypto cases is down in San Francisco. Whether it's the result of the new management plan isn't known, but it is a triumph for California's beef industry and San Fransiscans.

Bigger Isn't Better

The cow-calf rancher knows heifer calves are his future. He tries to keep good replacement females that will be productive, profitable cows. In the last few decades, however, some producers say so much emphasis has been put on production that the most important aspect has been forgotten: profitability.

There's a vast difference between the type of cow that can give you the most production - raising the biggest, fastest growing calf (more pounds to sell) and the cow that provides the most profit.

Colorado rancher Kit Pharo says he's discovered his most efficient and profitable cows have a frame score of 4.5-5.5, and a mature weight of 1,000-1,150 lbs.

Pharo, who raises Angus, Red Angus and composites using these two breeds mixed with Tarentaise, says, "Results of a recent survey by Cattle-Fax confirm our belief that bigger cows equal bigger feed bills."

According to this survey, cows weighing 1,000 lbs. had an annual cost of $297. Cows weighing 1,000-1,100 lbs. had an annual cost of $311. Bigger cows that weighed 1,200 lbs. had annual costs of $332.

"Our cows must survive on the resources produced by our ranch with very little supplemental feed," Pharo says. "We want a cow that can support the ranch instead of being supported by the ranch."

Pharo says he wants small cows that wean large calves. "Last year our cows averaged 1,065 lbs., while weaning calves with a 205-day adjusted weight of 590 lbs."

An Economic Viewpoint Pharo says today's philosophy in developing replacement heifers is getting ranchers in trouble.

"Last fall, I read an article advising that since heifer calves are the future of your operation, you should develop them to their fullest potential. Your goal should be to keep that heifer in the cow herd once you've invested money in her."

The gist of the article, Pharo says, was that success of a program revolves around nutritional development and meeting nutritional needs of the heifer. He disagrees.

"As a rancher, my goal is to make a profit, not to keep that heifer in the herd," Pharo says. "If I provide enough feed and supplements, I can keep nearly every heifer and cow in the herd, but I can't afford that much feed; neither can any rancher."

Academically, the industry knows how to meet the nutritional needs of cattle and that it's possible to achieve pregnancy rates close to 100%, Pharo says. But, he believes academics often fail to consider the associated costs.

"Often, we get so committed to a certain breed, color or type of cow that we're willing to do whatever it takes to keep those cows in production and in the herd," says Pharo.

Cows are not created equal. Some have higher maintenance requirements than others. "You can't afford to feed your entire cow herd enough to keep hard-keepers in production," says Pharo.

He's convinced a producer is overfeeding if his herd's pregnancy rate is close to 100%. To be profitable, producers need cows that fit their environment, instead of artificially changing the environment to fit the cows, he says.

On his ranch he lets environment sort out the good cows - those that can reproduce and wean good calves with a minimum of input costs. He doesn't cut open, late or dry cows any slack.

Pharo admits that he was at one time also impressed by a bull calf with a weaning weight of 700-900 lbs. "But now I realize it's often a result of nutrition, not genetics. Cattle of this type won't be cost effective or profitable for commercial producers," he says.

Finding Efficient Genetics Pharo says the seedstock producer-bull supplier plays a crucial role in a producer's business. "He's producing the genetics that affect your cow herd for many years to come. You can't afford to purchase a bull that moves your herd in the wrong direction."

Finding the right seedstock producer is more important than finding the right breed. "The right seedstock producer is someone that raises cattle the way you do. He plays by the same rules that you have to play by," says Pharo.

Chip Hines, another Colorado rancher, says he's learned that lesson, too.

"For years, I culled hard on udders, prolapses and cancer eyes, but I made little progress. It finally dawned on me these problems were still being passed on by my seedstock producers. Until they start culling for the same traits, I'll never be able to make any real progress."

The traits a bull passes on to his daughters are important, particularly if you plan to keep replacements. The rancher needs a bull that was produced by the right kind of cow. Individual weights, indexes and EPDs are important, but they don't show the whole picture.

EPDs often don't indicate fertility, feet and leg soundness, udder conformation, fleshing ability, longevity, disposition, mothering ability or other important traits that determine whether or not a cow will stay in the herd and be profitable.

Gerald Stokka, Extension veterinarian at Kansas State University, says that when purchasing a bull, it's essential to actually view his mother. "The daughters of the bull you purchase will look very similar to the bull's mother," he says.

Stokka suggests that ranchers ask these questions when looking at the mother of a herd bull prospect:

* How many calves has she had?

* Has she ever been open?

* What type of udder structure does she have?

* What's her disposition?

* What's her body condition under range conditions?

It's always wise to look at the cow and the cow herd that produced the bull you are interested in, Stokka suggests. And, look for breeders who are concerned about these important economic traits, he adds.

Critical Culling Dylan and Colleen Biggs raise Angus and composite seedstock near Coronation, Alberta. They began asking themselves similar questions about their herd. In the mid 1980s they became interested in holistic management, and as part of that program took a closer look at their cow herd's profitability.

Dylan says cattlemen traditionally have looked at weaning weights (bigger is better) and price received as the two most important aspects of cattle raising.

"But weaning weight actually should be a long way down the list. Stocking rate, pasture management, cost of production and percent of calves weaned are a lot more important," he says.

They don't pamper their young bulls nor their replacement heifers; they're roughed through winter on a minimum of feed, striving for genetics that can get as much gain on the cheapest feed. This tactic sorts out the heifers and identifies the ones that can contribute the most to the genetics of the bulls they raise - bulls that will sire fertile and feed-efficient females.

The main criteria for all of their breeding stock is what Dylan calls "forage doability" - cattle that are able to perform on grass under harsh conditions. And when raising young bulls for sale, this is the first thing they're selected on. Cattle that are feed efficient go through a thorough physical and breeding soundness evaluation and rated for physical traits on a 1-5 scale.

Dylan explains the scoring system: 1 is best, 2 and 3 acceptable, 4 is questionable and 5 is a cull. The bulls are scored on structure of feet and legs, capacity, muscling, secondary masculine characteristics, levelness of top, cleanness of prepuce and navel (no loose sheaths), shape and condition of penis, evaluation of left and right testicle, epididymal development and seminal vesicles, and scrotal circumference.

"If a bull rates a high score on all these evaluations, then he's semen checked," he says.

Because Dylan raises maternal cattle, he also provides bull buyers with information on the bull's mother. This information is "relative to her structural soundness and fertility, her age and weight at weaning of her calf, average nursing ratio, etc," he says. "We list the average birthweight of her calves, average calving interval in days, and udder score."

Cows are all scored (1 to 5) on attachment and levelness of udder, teat length and size. One is perfect and 5 is a cull. "If a cow has less than a 3 on udder, her bull doesn't make it to the sale," he says.

Cows are also scored on their feet. There can be no poor leg conformation or her calf won't be selected. "The feet and legs have to be balanced to grow properly," says Dylan.

"The seedstock producer has to be able to combine practical management that selects for traits wanted with the ability and skill to select for structural and soundness traits, and this takes some visual evaluation," he says. It's a combined technique that has helped the Biggs raise more efficient and profitable cattle.

Factors affecting calving difficulty

What contributes to calving difficulty and future reproduction? University of Nebraska researchers evaluated 550 spring-calving, two-year-old, first-calf heifers over a three-year period to determine just that.

The heifers were composite MARC II yearlings mated to Angus sires that were either low (-0.9 lb.) or high (+ 6.2 lbs.) in birthweight EPD.

At calving, heifers were given a calving difficulty score (CDS) on a 1 to 5 scale (1=no assistance, 5= C-section). In addition, a gauge attached to the calf puller recorded traction pressure. Following is a summary of the results:

Physical traits of the dam - Heifers that were heavy at birth experienced more calving difficulty because they had heavier birthweight calves, which was probably due to genetics.

Heifer weight, hip height and condition score at 12 and 22 months of age did not affect CDS.

However, dams requiring a C-section had significantly smaller pelvic areas at 12 and 22 months of age. There were no significant differences in pelvic areas among the other CDS groups. Pelvic area was the second most important trait accounting for calving difficulty; thus, yearling pelvic measurements could be useful in detecting heifers requiring C-sections.

Traits of the calf - Traction pressure significantly increased as CDS increased. However, the traction pressure system was able to detect only a slightly larger amount of the variation affecting dystocia than the five-point scoring system Birthweight increased as CDS increased and was the most important factor of those evaluated, accounting for approximately 33% of the total variation in calving difficulty.

There was a tendency for CDS to increase as external measures of calf size increased (head circumference, foot circumference, width of shoulders and depth of chest). However, the results were not consistent across CDS groups and width of hips was not related to CDS. Of the measurements taken, head circumference and width of shoulders seem to be the best indicators of degree of dystocia.

Calf vigor decreased as CDS increased up to CDS 4. Score 5 was not different from CDS 1, indicating that calves born through C-section did not experience any more stress than calves born unassisted.

Sire effects - Calf birthweight was significantly different between low- and high-birthweight sire groups (72.8 vs. 79.6 lbs.). Percent calving difficulty was lower for heifers bred to the low EPD sires (37% vs. 49%).

Calf head and foot circumferences were significantly different between low- and high-EPD sires, even when adjusted for calf birthweight. No significant differences were found for width of shoulders, width of hips or depth of chest among sires.

Reproductive traits - No differences were found among CDS groups in percentage of heifers having estrous cycles before breeding season.

Significant differences were found in conception date between CDS 1 compared with 3 and 4. As CDS increased from 1 to 4, conception date increased from June 13 to June 24. Average conception date for C-section heifers was June 15, similar to that of CDS 1.

There were no significant differences for percentage of heifers pregnant after the 75-day breeding season among CDS groups. This is counter to previous U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) research reporting that dystocia resulted in lower pregnancy rates.

No significant differences were observed among CDS groups for second-calf birthweight. However, second calf birthweights were heavier than those of the first calf.

Calf growth - Calves delivered by C-section were lighter at weaning than other calves, but had similar slaughter weights. Researchers speculated that the surgery could have negatively affected milk production of the heifers.

The only calves gaining significantly slower in the feedlot were the CDS 1 groups. These calves were the smallest at birth and may have had less genetic growth potential.

Weather effects - Average winter temperatures increased (became warmer) each winter during the three-year study.

Calf birthweights were significantly higher after the cold winter compared to the warmer winter (+10.1 lbs.). Moreover, calving assistance rates declined over the three-year period (58% to 47% to 35%).

These results suggest that greater calf birthweight and increased calving difficulty may be expected in the spring following severe winter temperatures.

From this information, researchers suggest the following management strategies:

* Selecting sires with low-birthweight EPDs helps produce calves with reduced bone size and birthweight, along with less calving difficulty.

* Major calving difficulty may be reduced by culling yearling heifers with heavy-birthweight calves and small pelvic measurements

* Climate can affect calving difficulty. Calving difficulty can affect subsequent conception date.

For more information contact Gene Deutscher, University of Nebraska, at 308/532-3611 ext. 136.

The baby and the checkoff

The beef cattle industry press has expended a considerable amount of space lately to the pros and cons of the beef checkoff program. As prices for fed beef, feeder calves, stockers, wheat, corn, barley, etc. decline, there seems to be an inclination to place part of the blame on the national checkoff assessment. The program is deemed to have failed because producers' prices have fallen.

Hindsight is always better than looking into the future. Today, we would likely do a better job of structuring the checkoff program than what was done 10 years ago. Not that those who drafted the concepts did a bad job - it's just easier to do better with all those years of experience to fall back upon.

Petitions calling for a producer referendum are being circulated. Critics are calling for a "no" vote as the way to address alleged problem areas in the checkoff program or the administration of those programs.

The industry has its hands full with low prices, lawsuits, trade issues, packer concentration, captive supplies, price discovery, environmental concerns, bad publicity over diet and health issues and declining consumer demand. Yet some believe the industry needs yet another controversy to help define or describe our present day predicaments.

Can It Be Fixed? Can the beef checkoff program be improved? Most knowledgeable producers think so. Is it all bad and therefore deserving of being abolished? Most reasonable minds would not concur with that action. So the real solution - as usually is the case - lies somewhere in between.

As a suggestion, perhaps the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture should appoint a blue ribbon task force to review and report on viable options regarding the future role of the beef checkoff. This group could investigate the current allegations, hold hearings and invite the opponents and proponents to appear, compare the beef program with other national commodity checkoffs and make recommendations to the Secretary based upon their findings.

Some of the issues that could be examined include:

* Is the current $1 per head the proper amount to be assessed?

* Should the state share remain at 50 cents, or should it be set at 50% irrespective of the amount of the assessment?

* Are all industry organizations treated fairly under the provision that excludes those not active at the time the Act was written as being eligible contractors?

* Is the representation on the powerful Operating Committee the proper mix?

* Should self-evaluation be the best way to serve the checkoff interests or is there a better way to measure progress and success?

* Are there unclear and ambiguous sections of the Act and Order that need to be reviewed and improved upon?

Undoubtedly, this list could be expanded as the task force work proceeded. Who would pay for this effort? The $5-million reserve fund held by the Cattlemen's Beef Board would be a possible place to start.

The Real Culprit The real culprit in most of the industry ills is loss of market share or competition from other protein sources. The problems the beef industry faces have been well documented and boil down to two things - the quality of our product and the consistency of favorable eating experiences. These can be expanded into convenience, ease of preparation, packaging, plus all the production issues the industry wrestles with.

These are not good times in rural America. While much of the U.S. has prospered in recent times, agriculture is suffering serious economic stress. A challenge regarding the beef checkoff makes for a good diversion, but doesn't address the real and fundamental problems. We owe it to ourselves to proceed, but with caution. Let's not be guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Steers wean heavy, but sell low

On October 15 we brought the weaned steers down from the fields to put in the holding pasture overnight before selling them.

At daylight the next morning, we hauled them three miles to our neighbor's scale to weigh and ship to a feedlot in Colorado. We sold while the calf market was hitting a low ebb - just our luck - and got $69.5/cwt. The steers weighed fairly well, however, for range raised calves that had been weaned (on grass) for three weeks. The bunch averaged 592 lbs./hd.

A few weeks ago I had our veterinarian look at Rubbie, my 11-year-old grey mare and best cowhorse. The corner of her eye has looked rough and irritated this summer, and it wasn't getting any better. The vet confirmed my suspicion: squamous cell carcinoma - a common type of cancer that often affects light-colored or unpigmented skin.

We put an ointment into the eye for a few days to clear up the inflammation, then the vet removed most of the third eyelid.

We've been putting antibiotic ointment into the corner of her eye daily since the surgery. Rubbie is not happy with this treatment, so to keep her from jerking her head up to avoid the ointment, we are using a restraint called the Stableizer.

Developed by a man who grew up breaking horses on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, the Stableizer is an adaptation of the old Indian war bridle or sliptwitch, but it's more humane, more effective and more versatile. It is now being used by a growing number of veterinarians, farriers and horse trainers. It works better than lip chains, twitches or tranquilizers for nervous horses when giving medical treatments, trimming and shoeing, trailer loading, passing a nasal tube, etc.

The Stableizer slips over the head, behind the ears and under the top lip next to the gum, and is then tightened using the cord handle utilizing small pulleys. This placement stimulates the release of endorphins (natural narcotic-like substances produced by the body which block out pain) from pressure points behind the ears. The pressure point beneath the lip blocks the release of adrenaline and tends to relax the horse.

Rubbie stands calm and sleepy with it on, not protesting the eye treatment. This new restraint looks like it will be very handy for many purposes - making awkward tasks safer for us and kinder to the horse.

Prepping for Winter

Now's the time to start anticipating and planning for this winter's fury, says Bob Jairell, hydrologic technician at the Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Laramie, WY.

"Since most working corrals and chutes are out in the open and built of 6-in. boards with 6-in. gaps that trap a lot of snow," says Jairell, "look at stormproofing them by using cable instead of wood, or by building a snow fence."

Doing anything to prevent snow pileups can save you a bundle. On average, Jairell estimates it costs 100 times more to mechanically move snow than it does to build a snow fence or windscreen for prevention.

Because natural protection is usually not available on many ranches, producers are increasingly turning to windscreens, Jairell says. They not only protect cattle and workers in winter, but also in any seasonal windy conditions.

Windscreens are completely solid barriers, normally built in a 90 degree V-shape with the "V" pointing into the prevailing wind. The V-shape protection barrier - both temporary and permanent - reduces wind speed and diverts drifting snow. Tests show that barriers should be constructed with a solid face to divert drifting snow around the ends. Otherwise, blowing snow sifts through the porous shelter and forms drifts in the protected area. (See BEEF, May 1990, page 12 and February 1992, page 10).

Designs To Deflect Snow For optimum deflection of drifting snow, the shelter should be no longer than 15 times its height. Jairell says that means both height and length must be adjusted to provide the required protection area for a given herd size. Build it longer than 15 times its height and drifting snow is forced up, over the top of the barrier, to fall on animals in the protection zone.

Windscreens can also be built in a semi-circle design with about the same materials as the V-design, and result in about 25% more snow deflection. The most tangible benefit of windscreen barriers, the researcher says, is a reduction in feed required by the animal to maintain body condition.

Common Sense Blizzard Tips To also help prevent drifting in winter, he says to build roads up from the ground and keep weeds down. And, keep weeds and trash out of fencelines to reduce fence damage. "Cutting grass along fencelines takes time and money, but it costs a lot more to rebuild those fences," he says.

For many producers, natural riparian areas are available. Use them, Jairell says.

He also says you often can do a better job of preparing for a blizzard by listening to weather reports. "If one is coming, lay in more feed and make it accessible. It's just common sense," Jairell says.

Free vs. Fair

For Columbus, MT, rancher Leo McDonnell the traditional explanations for declining cattle prices no longer seem to apply.

"We've been in this business all of our lives. You can tell something is wrong," says McDonnell, who began keeping a watchful eye on imports about four years ago.

McDonnell, who operates the Midland Bull Test and runs his own herd of Angus cows, says this round of lower prices is not part of a normal cattle cycle. Instead, he believes imports are contributing to an oversupply of cattle, resulting in a lack of demand - and price - for beef.

He bases his conclusion on simple math: The U.S. is projected to have record beef imports in 1998 and 1999, yet cow herd inventories - and thus number of calves produced - are near record lows.

Indeed, the U.S. was the largest importing country of beef (in tonnage) in the world last year, according to USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) reports. And that's not counting the 2.046 million head of live-cattle imports that came into the country last year, to boot.

Add to the mix the fact that USDA reports "all cattle slaughtered in the U.S. including all live imports" as "U.S. beef production," and you may begin to understand why McDonnell's watchful eye turned to a raised eyebrow. For example, last year's 2.046 million head were factored into U.S. production numbers.

McDonnell and other ranchers began to suspect that they weren't entirely to blame for the current cattle supply glut. They've thus begun to rally for fairness in free trade.

They've done that in the form of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Foundation (R-CALF), a non-profit corporation formed in May 1998 with the sole purpose of initiating enforcement of U.S. trade regulations regarding imports of beef and cattle.

"We're not looking for trade barriers, just fair trade," says McDonnell, founder and president of R-CALF.

At issue are very low-priced, live-cattle imports from both Canada and Mexico and government support programs to Canadian cattle producers.

Trade policies are on the books to protect our producers from these unfair trade practices, says McDonnell. However, these policies generally aren't enforced unless the industry claiming injury files a petition for "import relief." This requires the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission (ITC) to initiate investigations and take action.

"If we want our trade laws enforced, the industry must step to the plate," McDonnell says. It's a process that's been used successfully by red raspberry growers, tomato growers, wheat gluten producers, salmon producers, the U.S. steel industry and others.

Hoping for solutions, R-CALF filed three petitions for import relief on behalf of the cattle industry October 1. The petitions ask for trade remedies regarding beef cattle dumping by Canada and Mexico and trade-affecting subsidies against Canada (see sidebar on page 34).

What To Expect? So what are the cattle industry's chances of seeing trade remedies? What changes can producers expect in prices?

Attorney Terence Stewart of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Stewart and Stewart is a specialist in international law and is representing R-CALF. Stewart says the success rate in anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases is one in two. But he is convinced R-CALF will be successful.

"We think we have a very strong case. Canada's dumping margins are 10 to 30 percent and margins for Mexico are much higher," he says. "If the case is successful, producers should see higher prices for their cattle."

If other industries are any indication, Stewart's prediction should be accurate. Take for example the tomato industry.

In 1996 Stewart represented the U.S. tomato industry when it filed an import relief case alleging Mexico was "dumping" tomato imports into the U.S. Part- way through the investigation, Mexican producers asked for a suspension agreement in which a floor price was established for tomatoes coming into the U.S.

The agreement raised the price for tomatoes on both sides of the border. In the first year, revenue increased $60-80 million for U.S. tomato producers, according to McDonnell.

While establishing a floor price on imports through a suspension agreement is not normally how import relief cases are settled, Stewart says import relief cases can be a win-win for everyone.

"U.S. producers get fair prices; foreign producers get fair prices; consumers get improved supply and fair prices as well," says Stewart.

"This doesn't stop imports, but it means imports have to come in at a fair value. If imports are sold below that value to the U.S., the importer pays the difference," he adds.

So is R-CALF the best option for the cattle industry?

Stewart says the anti-dumping petition, coupled with countervailing duties, are among the best legal tools when there are low-priced imports in the market.

"These are tools that have stood the test of time, and they have made a significant difference in the viability of many industries," says Stewart.

"Selling below cost for an extended period of time is not sustainable and is potentially actionable under U.S. law," he adds. Furthermore, Stewart says R-CALF and its supporters are doing the right thing by taking a strong stand that fair trade conditions must be reestablished.

With the potential for price improvements, McDonnell says he is disappointed with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and other producer organizations that haven't completely supported R-CALF.

Naysayers The NCBA Executive Committee is supporting the countervailing duty petition against Canada, but has chosen to support its policy to seek bilateral negotiations rather than legal action as a way of controlling live-cattle imports from Mexico and Canada.

"These imports are not a new phenomenon, especially from Mexico," says NCBA's economist Chuck Lambert. "We have seen the livestock industry expand in Canada, so we have seen imports increase. But even at the current level those imports only account for 3.5 percent of total slaughter."

Canadian cattle imports have increased from less than 500,000 in 1988 to 1.38 million head last year. And, Lambert acknowledges that imports are a "contributing factor" to oversupplies. But, he contends that heavier slaughter weights of U.S. cattle are the largest contributor.

He points out that at 99.5 million head, cow inventories are back to the lows of the 1960s, but we're producing as much beef as we were in the 1970s when inventories were at record highs.

Lambert adds that, if anything, the balance of trade has moved in favor of the U.S. "Just in the last two years we've begun to increase our exports toward an equivalent amount of what we import. Prior to that, the U.S. exported very little."

But McDonnell and other R-CALF supporters question why so many imports are necessary?

For example, the poultry industry doesn't appear to suffer from an imbalance between imports and exports. FAS reported that the U.S. exported 2.6 million tons of poultry last year while importing less than 300,000 tons. According to the FAS, this deficit is because the U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service only allows poultry imports from five countries whose meat inspection is equivalent to ours.

Impact On Exports Concern over exports is probably the biggest reason R-CALF may be a double-edged sword. More than 90% of all U.S. cattle exported go to Mexico and Canada. Moreover, Mexico has been a long-term supplier of feeder cattle to U.S. cattlemen and is now our second-largest and fastest growing export market for U.S. beef.

But R-CALF only pertains to live cattle, and Stewart says, "The reality is we (the U.S.) run a massive trade deficit on live cattle with both Mexico and Canada, I don't see how this case would jeopardize that."

Furthermore, says Stewart, U.S. producers are not at risk of losing export markets simply because cases are brought in the U.S. against unfair trade practices. Retaliation by a foreign government against trade actions being brought in the U.S. is not permitted, he adds.

And, other countries can use the same defense. "If U.S. exports are being dumped and causing injury, the country claiming injury has a right to pursue an investigation," says Stewart. In fact, the Mexican cattle and beef industries filed an anti-dumping petition with the Mexican government against the U.S. long before R-CALF cases were prepared and filed, Stewart says.

Is The Threat Enough? At the very least, the import relief petitions are causing concern - and some action - on both sides of the border.

As a result of border blockades and Congressional concerns, negotiations have been taking place between the U.S. and Canada to address the concerns of grain and cattle producers.

NCBA cites implementation of revised Northwest Pilot Project rules on October 1 to allow U.S. cattlemen to ship more feeder cattle into Canadian feedlots as an example. The rules waive specific animal testing requirements in order to make cross-border shipment of live cattle more accessible to U.S. cattle producers.

And the U.S. steel industry has experienced that filing an import relief case - whether you win or lose - can improve prices.

In the past two decades the steel industry has filed about 46% of the nation's unfair trade complaints even though it has lost more than half its cases in the last 10 years.

But, win or lose, steelmakers have learned that once the industry files trade cases, often imports drop because importers fear having to pay duties on the imports. While the case is in the works for about a year, the domestic industry can raise prices. And, even if ITC rejects the case, the market gets time to rebound.

At the same time, there are some early indications of possible price movements in the U.S. "R-CALF filed on October 1 and we have seen an upward move on the market in prices for live cattle," says McDonnell.

Finally, to get an idea of what could happen if nothing is done, McDonnell says to look to the sheep industry.

Sheep numbers have gone from 33 million head in 1960 to 11.8 million in 1988 to 7.6 million head in 1998. Yet, lamb and mutton supplies (including imports) in the U.S. have remained around 160,000 metric tons from 1980 to 1997. With imports increasing from 19% in 1995 to 29% in 1998, it is evident that imports are keeping supplies up.

Recently, the sheep industry filed an import relief case of its own that, if successful, would allow lamb imports but prevent them from flooding the market.

And that is the bottom line: lowering supplies to create demand and allow prices to rebound.

McDonnell concedes cattle imports won't stop, but adds that doing away with subsidies should improve prices on both sides of the border. "They are aware of it (their subsidies) and they know we're coming," says McDonnell.

McDonnell says nine of 10 phone calls he receives from Canadians say they hope the U.S. industry wins the case because they believe it will also increase the price of Canadian cattle.

"I still think what we're doing will benefit producers in all three countries, but they are going to have to play fair," says McDonnell.

"This whole thing is about putting more money in feeders pockets. Until they get more profitable, we won't get more money back to the producer," McDonnell says.

On Oct. 1, 1998 R-CALF filed three petitions for import relief on behalf of the U.S. cattle industry.

The petitions ask for the following trade remedies:

* Anti-dumping margins against Canada and a separate petition against Mexico. (Dumping is considered under international law if prices for export are below the full cost of production in the exporting country.)

The anti-dumping petition asserts actions by Canadian producers may be undercutting cost of production by $50-150 a head. The petition against Mexico asserts that country's beef cattle are coming into the U.S. with dumping margins of more than $200 a head.

* The second petition against Canada, called a countervailing duty petition, charges that up to 39 federal and provincial subsidies give Canadian cattle producers roughly a $100/head edge over U.S. producers when they ship those cattle south. If there are grounds for a countervailing suit, Canadian cattle would be assessed a fee (or trade "duty") that would be equivalent to the amount of subsidy that is being paid to the Canadian producer by the government until the subsidy is dropped.

* R-CALF is also monitoring the U.S. government negotiations with Canada on the issue of feed barley prices in Canada and whether they provide an artificial benefit to Canadian cattlemen.

R-CALF's attorney Terence Stewart says the next hurdle after filing is to get the Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission (ITC) to initiate an investigation.

In order to do that R-CALF needs to obtain "standing" by obtaining support by at least 25% of U.S. production of live cattle. The Department of Commerce is currently looking at cattle inventory as the denominator as such figures account for the roles played by cow-calf operators, backgrounder-yearling operators and feedlots. R-CALF needs at least 21.5 million head of cattle in support, with more support than opposition. The deadline was November 10.

If the case is initiated, R-CALF will have until December 4 to prove "injury" to the cattle industry. "Injury will be the easiest to prove because we're in a supply-sensitive business," says Leo McDonnell, R-CALF founder and president. "A 10-percent change in supply would have a 15- to 20-percent impact on price."

The estimated cost of R-CALF's case is $1.5 million, but funding is not a problem, says McDonnell. Over $700,000 has already been collected from producers, banks and groups like the National Farmers Union.

And a decision should come within a year. This process has a defined timetable and structure, says McDonnell. That means a decision should be made within 8-12 months and costs should be kept in check, he adds.

Survivors will see better times

The October cattle market brought back a little enthusiasm. Choice slaughter steers in the Amarillo feedlot area pushed upwards from a weak mid-$50 level early to the mid-$60 range as November began. The gain moved monthly average prices up $3/cwt.

Feeder cattle and calves also rallied significantly. The gain in the average monthly price, however, wasn't nearly as dramatic since the volatility during the month was intense.

What's Wrong With The Market? Many cattlemen are still wondering why the market has been so weak this past year. The blame has been laid at over-production of beef, failure of the checkoff, packer concentration and the weather. While each of these has likely had some impact, their influence is probably overstated or misunderstood.

Let's look at the statistics relative to some of these criticisms:

* As of Oct. 17, 1998, federally inspected cattle slaughter was running 2% below a year ago. Calf slaughter was down 5%. While carcass weights have been up significantly, total beef production still appears to be only about 1% greater for the year.

Fed-cattle marketings from commercial feedlots in the U.S. are actually down 1% so far this year. Given the projections for the remainder of 1998, it appears fed-beef production may be down or close to last year's level.

* While some question the performance of the checkoff, the corrective suggestions may not have been thought out completely. For example, a syndicated cowboy personality has recently suggested that checkoff funds be given to food retailers to help merchandise beef.

This implies advertising credits. Food retailers obtain thousands of such dollar credits from manufacturers of the many products they sell. The irony is that they get such advertising credits on a national rate basis but buy the ads on much cheaper regional or state levels.

Instead of costing them millions, retailers actually make money on those large, full-page ads in the newspaper. So, when cattlemen pay retailers such a credit, they shift the cost of advertising from the retailer to the producer.

* Most research studies on packer concentration indicate about the same results. The economies of size displayed by big packers may do more good for the industry than the price harm they might exert on cattle prices.

If you stop and think about it - just as long as a packer doesn't pay more than his competitor - he's content. A packer who has lower costs because he is larger can afford to pay more for cattle. Thus, such firms may actually shore up cattle prices.

* The 1998 drought drastically affected Southwest producers, particularly in Texas. But the eventual rains put 1998 in the history books as a normal year.

The lack of moisture is still being felt. It caused early marketings of calves, heavy culling of breeding cows and negatively impacted the cattleman's attitude toward holding stock over the winter. Its effects, however, will be felt more in 1999 when feeder calf numbers are down, fed marketings are lower and the calf crop is further reduced.

* Probably the most important factor pushing beef prices lower is seldom even thought of - demand. It's a subject that's difficult to address and even harder to prove.

Most livestock economists, however, agree that beef demand is sinking rapidly. Beef is no longer the Cadillac of foods. That may be partly due to the industry's decision to try to compete price wise with cheaper meats.

Choice beef is no longer the restaurant favorite and most retailers have shifted to handling Select or ungraded beef. It's cheaper but less consistent and doesn't do much to build customer loyalty.

Record Heavy Placements Cattle and calves on feed for the U.S. slaughter market in feedlots with capacities of 1,000 head or more totaled 9.75 million head on October 1. That's 2% below October '97 but 10% above 1996. This is the second month of lower numbers.

The inventory included 5.97 million steers and steer calves, down 2% from a year ago; and 3.77 million heifers and heifer calves, down 3% from '97. Steers made up 61% of total inventory, similar to a year ago.

Despite the reduced number of cattle on feed, six states recorded gains from last October - South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, California and Idaho. All states displayed larger numbers from the previous month.

Ironically, drought conditions in Texas seemingly didn't influence the proportion of steers vs. heifers that moved into feedlots. While the expectation was that more heifers would be sold for feeding, the October data doesn't show that. Texas feedlots had 8% more steers and steer calves on feed than a year ago and 5% less heifers and heifer calves.

Fed-cattle marketing from feedlots in September reached 1.86 million head, 3% above 1997 and 18% above 1996 - the first month of larger-than-year-ago marketings in six months. Eight states reported larger marketings, led by Oklahoma, Texas, California and Colorado.

Fed-cattle marketing equations predict lower October sales and similar-to-lower movement in November. December marketings, however, could be up slightly.

Placements of cattle and calves into feedlots in September totaled 2.65 million head - 2% below 1997 and slightly below September 1996. Placements were up in four states - Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington. Texas placements were down a sharp 9%.

In September, placements of calves weighing less than 600 lbs. were only 433,000 head, down 10% from a year ago. Calves 600-699 lbs. were 4% less. Higher-weight feeders (700-799 lbs.) were down 3%, while the heaviest (800 lbs. or more) were 3% greater. This is the largest proportion of these heaviest weight feeders ever placed on feed since the data was recorded.

'Tis The Season To Be Cautious The fed-cattle market should end the year in a semi-firm mode. Historically, it has been very difficult for cattle prices to rise during the holiday season. Demand is generally lower this time of year. Beef is not the usual Thanksgiving or Christmas meal (except at my house).

The season also holds other pitfalls - many markets close for the holidays. Market news reports are usually discontinued during this vacation period.

Entering 1999, things should be completely different. Fed-cattle prices will most likely be improving into the spring months with feeders leading the way. Feedlots are likely to move back into the profit side of the ledger early in the new year.

The new year should hold a lot of promise for ranchers. Fewer feeder calves, improved fed-cattle prices, cheaper feed and basically less competition from neighbors. For those of us left, it could be a great year.