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Articles from 2002 In April


2001 Beef Quality Challenge

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Small operations aren't endangered

By Minnie Lou Bradley

Ranchers who run 100-499 head of mama cows are on the endangered species list, says the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) data. This data suggests there's very little a cattle producer with this number of cattle can do to make his operation as efficient as one with 500 head or more. Those with fewer than 100 head, as a rule, don't depend entirely on the cattle for their livelihoods.

I refuse to accept the fact that a family operation such as mine can't be profitable. The economists who developed SPA did a great job; they've helped me considerably. They continue to believe, however, that all cows are created equal and that average for the herd is where I need to be.

Their mindset could be due to the fact they've never seen much individual data on cattle. I believe it's irresponsible on my part if I don't know whether or not each cow on my place is paying her way.

No doubt, these economists are sincere and have looked at more total data than I ever will. But perhaps they need to consider other possibilities such as genetics and genetic management.

For instance, SPA data indicates a home for a beef cow averages around $3,500/head. The data also says the average cost of production from breeding of the cow to weaning is about $350.

These average-based numbers make it difficult to determine whether a particular investment or management change will return more than it costs, much less indicate the profit potential in a cowherd of any size.

As an example, consider this real-life scenario. A ranch raises and retains a group of 60 females as replacements (purebred females mated back to purebred bulls of the same breed, so there's no heterosis involved). They run in the same pasture from when they are selected until they wean their first calves.

Table 1. Steer weaning weights and revenue

 Average weaning weight (lbs.)($/cwt.)Gross revenue ($)
Heaviest 25% (7 head) 716.29 $97 $694.80
Middle 50% (14 head) 610 $99 $603.90
Lightest 25% (7 head) 522 $104 $542.88

This group of replacements produces 28 steer calves sired by bulls with expected progeny differences for weaning weight of +27, +27 and +29. Thus, the effect these sires should have on variation in the weaning weight of the calves should be negligible.

These steers are weighed individually at the ranch and matched to their dams. On average, these 28 steer calves weaned at 614.57 lbs., but the heaviest 25% weaned an extra 100 lbs. more. Meanwhile, the lightest 25% weaned almost 100 lbs. less than average (Table 1).

Using Oklahoma City Market prices of July 13, 2001, the week these calves were weaned, the heaviest 25% returned $151.92. That's 22% more per head than the lightest 25%. Meanwhile, the middle 50% returned $61 (9%) per head more than the lightest 25%.

Now, take it a step further. The dams of these calves were also weighed individually at the same time as their calves. The two heaviest cows weaned calves in the lightest 25%, while the two lightest cows weaned calves in the heaviest 25% (see Table 2 on page 30). Keep in mind, the heaviest calves cost less to produce because their dams were lighter and their maintenance requirements were lower.

Of course, the tale of these heavy and light dams raises a couple of key questions:

  • Were the lighter cows that weaned a higher percentage of their mature weight in condition to rebreed? Both the lighter cows, and the heaviest, rebred within the 60 days given them.

  • Were these lighter cows large enough to also produce heavy yearling weight cattle? The 957-lb. cow produced a calf with a 1,145-lb. yearling weight, and the cow weighing 935 lbs. produced a calf that weighed 1,000 lbs. at yearling time.

Table 2.

Dam's mature weight (lbs.)Calf weaning weight (lbs.)Calf yearling weight (lbs.)% body weight (lbs.) weaned
935 (lightest) 685 1,000 73%
975 (next lightest) 782 1,145 80%
1,230 (heaviest) 512 shipped at weaning 42%
1,200 (next heaviest) 574 924 48%

Meanwhile, the heaviest cow (1,230 lbs.) produced a calf that didn't make the weight threshold to qualify for the ranch's retained ownership feeding program. And, the 1,200-lb. cow produced a calf that weighed 900 lbs. as a yearling.

So, do the added dollars made possible by this information surpass the cost of the time and tools needed to collect the information? How can we afford not to own a set of scales when we sell by the pound?

Along with a scale, eartags, pencil and paper (or computers) are the only other tools you need to obtain the information described above. If the scale is beneath the working chute, it takes very little time to weigh both the cows and calves when vaccinating. As for matching calves to their mamas, calves can be tagged at branding, then the tags matched and cross-referenced to the dam's eartag any time before weaning.

This is just one example that illustrates that operations of 100-499 cows are a long way from being endangered if we use genetics and data to guide us in producing more pounds for less. It won't always be the lighter cows with the heavier calves, but we can aim in that direction if we know the individual production of each cow.

Ship those costly cows that don't wean at least 50% of their mature body weight every 365 days. Every herd has profitable and efficient cows; it's just a matter of finding them.

The Bradley 3 Ranch, Memphis, TX, has produced “Ranch-Raised Angus Bulls for Ranchers” since 1956. In 1986, the Bradley family opened a beef processing facility and now markets its own branded products under the B3R Country Meats label. The program includes producers in 17 states and retailers in 18 states. Minnie Lou runs the ranching operations, while daughter Mary Lou runs the beef business. For more information, call 806/888-1062, visit www.bradley3ranch.com or e-mail [email protected].

Understanding dry matter intake

Understanding dry matter intake

Dry matter intake (DMI) is a factor that must be estimated before an animal's diet can be properly calculated. Yet, DMI is a concept that's commonly misunderstood.

The National Research Council (NRC) requirement tables include a column for DMI. The amount listed, however, is often mistaken to be the amount of dry matter that a cow must consume regardless of the quality of the feed. In reality, this is the level of intake that a cow must consume of a ration that contains the energy concentration recommended for her by nutrient tables.

Consumption controls

It's well known that consumption of less-digestible, low-energy, high-fiber diets is controlled by rumen fill and the feed passage rate through the animal. Meanwhile, consumption of highly digestible, high-energy, low-fiber feeds is controlled by the animal's energy needs and by metabolic factors.

These concepts may seem quite simple, but the factors that regulate DMI are complex and aren't fully understood.

How much dry matter will a cow eat? There's no simple and exact answer, but we can predict DMI reasonably well from tables and practical experience.

Depending on the quality of the diet, a mature cow will usually consume 1-3% of her body weight (BW). Consumption of low-quality feeds may be 1-2% of BW, while green pasture may be 2-3%.

The factors that influence the amount a cow will eat include her size, body condition, stage and level of production. Other factors include the quality and availability of forage, amount and type of supplements and her environment.

With diets high in fiber, the rate and level of digestibility — and rate of passage of the feed — will have a large effect on intake. The faster the feed is digested, the faster it passes through the digestive tract and the more it allows for an increase in consumption. Poor-quality roughage such as straw, on the other hand, will have a slower rate of digestion than a high-quality feed such as alfalfa.

Feeding more dry matter than is required to meet an animal's needs is a waste of feed. With high-quality alfalfa hay, the energy and protein requirements can be met with about 17.5 lbs. of hay. Since the rate of passage will be relatively fast, the cow may appear hungry before the next feeding, even though her nutrient requirements have been met.

With straw, the cow would have to eat about 44 lbs. (NRC) to meet her energy and protein requirements. This she can't do. We can predict that she would eat only 20 lbs. [1,000 lb. X 2% DMI (max.)].

The cow will appear full, but she won't be meeting her nutrient requirements. It's a scenario I see quite often in cattle on corn stalks or other poor quality roughage.

Factors affecting DMI

Implants tend to increase feed intake while Rumensin tends to decrease feed intake. Meanwhile, Bovatec has little effect.

A protein deficiency (less than 6-8%) also may decrease feed intake. This often occurs when cattle are on corn stalks, straw or other low-quality roughage.

This explains why supplemental protein increases DMI, as well as the digestibility of the roughage. Protein is needed by the rumen bugs to multiply and digest fiber.

Palatability also may affect DMI. Highly palatable feeds encourage consumption, while bitter-tasting feeds, no matter the value, will limit consumption. Molasses-based supplements encourage dry matter consumption. They're a good example of how we can manipulate DMI and, inherently dry matter digestibility, which increases rate of passage.

Not an exact science

Predicting DMI isn't an exact science. But by understanding the factors that affect DMI and the tables to estimate levels, as well as some practical experience, we can become comfortable in using estimates.

One problem in estimating DMI from tables or published data using rumen fill or energy demand is the phenomena of large increases in DMI in certain situations. These would include during lactation, cold stress and shortly before an impending storm or low-pressure front advancing to an area.

In addition, decreases in DMI have been observed with advancing pregnancy just when there are increased nutrient demands on the cow.

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When calculating diets for cows for the middle trimester, we may use low-quality roughage to meet both DMI and nutrient requirements. Nearer to calving, we should increase the nutrient density of the feed to meet the increased requirements with less rumen fill. In any event, we need to keep the appetite of the cow satisfied in addition to meeting her nutrient requirements.

By the way, you can find feed composition values for 280 commonly used feeds for sheep and cattle here.

In addition, you'll find the NRC's 7th revised edition of “Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle.”

David Wieland, Shepherd, MT, is a nutrition consultant specializing in cow/calf, feedlot and horses. He also publishes a subscription newsletter and runs a cowherd. Contact him at 406/373-5512 or [email protected].

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Promise & Delivery

When you have your whole calf crop in the pen for weaning but a summer thunderstorm knocks out your hydraulic chute and electronic scales, it's kind of hard to remember that technology is a good thing. But on down the line, especially at the packers, further processors and the supermarket meatcase, technology is making your product safer, tastier and more convenient.

Start with the big issue — safety. No matter how delicious and handy that pre-cooked burger is, if consumers think it will make them sick, they aren't going to buy it.

“Packing plants look entirely different from 10 years ago,” says researcher Mohammad Koohmaraie, U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE.

“The industry has been extremely proactive in using intervention measures to reduce the level of pathogens, particularly E. coli 0157:H7,” he continues.

Koohmaraie says the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), American Meat Institute (AMI), government and university researchers and packers are cooperating to put safety measures to work. The job of pathogen reduction starts on the kill floor and continues until the cattle are in the cooler.

Steam, steam vacuuming and hot water rinses take place after the hide is off. In some packing plants, organic acid washes, including lactic, citric and acetic acid, also help wash off any traces of pathogens. Then, steam pasteurization is usually the last step before the cooler.

At Excel, they go another step and douse the carcass with chilled water right after steam pasteurization.

“There is temperature shock both ways,” says Excel vice president Dell Allen. “In my opinion, this is probably our most effective intervention.”

Koohmaraie says these collective actions dramatically reduce pathogens, particularly E. coli 0157:H7. Incidence of E. coli varies by season, he adds. The worst comes in mid summer when 40-50% of cattle might test positive for E. coli when they arrive at the packing plant.

“By the time the carcasses get to the cooler, we see one percent or less,” he adds.

More safety measures are on the way. USDA recently approved the use of lactoferrin as a coating for fresh beef. A natural protein found in milk and dairy products, it protects fresh beef from more than 30 types of pathogens, including E. coli and salmonella.

Mark Klein, Excel's communications director, says the company is taking a look at lactoferrin, as well as another microbial spray. They have also recently partnered with e-Merge Interactive on putting VerifEYE to work.

VerifEYE is the first commercial imaging system to detect microscopic contamination on beef. It's a real-time, electronically-controlled instrument that detects even minute amounts of organic contamination that can make it through the gauntlet of steam, hot water and acid rinses.

Excel is also involved in a pilot project on irradiation of ground beef using the SureBeam® electronic pasteurization process. Used after final packaging of the ground beef product, the process provides a 99.999% kill of food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E. coli 0157:H7.

“We're test-marketing both irradiated fresh and frozen ground beef to figure out if there is consumer acceptance,” says Allen. “We're also trying to identify the effect of irradiation on shelf life.”

Progress On Convenience

Along with safety, consumers insist on convenience. Hence the bumper crop of pre-cooked and microwave-ready beef products. Besides providing consumers with quick, easy alternatives to poultry, these products are also bumping up demand for the chuck, round and, hopefully, cull cows.

An NCBA-funded project is doing its part by helping make the chuck, round and cow beef more user-friendly for further processors.

In a muscle profiling study, the University of Nebraska's Chris Calkins and University of Florida's Dwain Johnson evaluated 39 different muscles of the chuck and round from 144 finished carcasses, a total of more than 5,500 muscles.

“We created a book, or encyclopedia of knowledge, about those muscles,” says Calkins. “We wanted to add value to those muscles so they could be used in value-added products.”

That book comes in CD form and also features a color-coded chart of the muscles' characteristics. Calkins says the information has been translated into five languages and is used by packers, processors, food service, the retail industry, U.S. Meat Export Federation and the U.S. government.

He says NCBA also used the information to identify a series of value cuts that can be removed from the chuck and round. An example is the flat-iron steak — actually the top blade — which he notes is “one of the two or three most tender muscles in the carcass.”

Calkins says the top blade has a seam of connective tissue that prevented it from being popular with consumers, but the seam can be removed with a cut similar to filleting a fish. Now, the flat-iron steak is a hot item in trendy restaurants.

“It's come close to selling itself. It's doing very, very well,” he comments.

Calkins and Johnson are also working on a similar project with cow muscles. However, these muscles are not limited to the chuck and round.

“NCBA felt like there was much about the cow carcass we didn't know,” explains Johnson. “A large portion of that carcass is being ground or used for sausage manufacturing. There may be some opportunities to retrieve some added value from higher-quality cows or higher-quality muscles.”

Johnson says they're looking at value-added products — further tenderized, seasoned, marinated, pre-cooked products and more convenient fajita strips, roasts and steaks.

“We hope to enhance some of the whole-muscle cuts and roasts that are marginal in palatability with marination. This will increase their value and usability. Some of these cow muscles may really lend themselves to this new technology,” Johnson says.

In IBP's Thomas E. Wilson line, the technology of injecting primals with marinades has already proven itself. IBP's Brian McFarlane says the technology “significantly improves flavor, tenderness and juiciness. In addition, it protects the product from overcooking in the household, again improving the eating experience for the customer.”

While Johnson says the equipment needed to inject marinade is fairly simple, the tenderness challenge is also being addressed with high-tech gadgets. For instance, packers are finding digital and video cameras useful in sorting carcasses by grade and yield.

Computer Vision Systems (CVS), manufactured by Research Management Systems USA, is a dual-component, digital imaging system that starts analyzing the carcass while it's still on the harvest floor. It takes pictures and measurements of the entire beef carcass from both sides. Then, another camera takes a picture and measures the chilled ribeye.

“It's programmed to predict the saleable yield of individual carcasses,” explains Keith Belk, Colorado State University animal scientist. “It takes the place of USDA yield grade. It assigns yield in more accurate increments and assigns price in a more accurate way and can immediately transfer the information.”

But there's more. To go along with the CVS units, Belk and his co-workers have developed BeefCam technology. With video imaging, BeefCam can measure the color of the fat and lean of the ribeye.

“It does a pretty good job of sorting carcasses into groups according to how the meat will eat after it has been aged and cooked,” Belk says. “It's not perfect. I don't know anybody who can predict with absolute certainty how a carcass will eat. There are additional changes in a carcass in time, and cooking impacts eating quality.”

It's sufficiently accurate, however, that the folks at Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef have put their faith in it. At the Sam Kane packing plant that handles Nolan Ryan beef, BeefCam gives the operator a red or a green light based on its tenderness calculations.

If the light is green, the operator stamps the carcass with a “T” and it moves on to the USDA grader. If the light is red, the carcass doesn't go in the Nolan Ryan line.

Charlie Bradbury, the Nolan Ryan CEO, says the system is 90-95% accurate.

“With the BeefCam, electrical stimulation and aging the beef 14 days, we greatly reduce the odds of a negative eating experience,” he says.

Since the startup of the guaranteed-tender product line in May 2000, Nolan Ryan has sold more than $8-million worth of beef and refunded just $692, says Bradbury. “We virtually have no complaints about the tenderness, but we hear lots of compliments,” he says.

Genetic Checks

Researchers are hoping to tag that animal with a tendency toward tenderness or toughness long before it ever hits the red light/green light of the BeefCam, though. More preferable would be the day the animal is born or, at the latest, when he gets to the feedlot. That's why DNA studies on tenderness and marbling are ongoing, both in the U.S. and overseas.

For instance, Cornell, Kansas State (KSU), Texas A&M and Colorado State universities, along with a private firm, Celera Ag Gen, are cooperating in a four-year study. They're testing 11 gene markers for ribeye area, tenderness and marbling in more than 8,000 finished steers and heifers sired by bulls from 15 different breed associations.

“The project still has quite a ways to go in testing the markers,” says KSU animal scientist Michael Dikeman. “But on a limited number, we're finding that some sires are apparently heterozygous for different markers.

“A particular sire will have one marker for tenderness that is favorable and one that is not favorable. Half of his progeny will be above average in tenderness and half below average. Another sire may be homozygous for the favorable marker and all of his progeny will be above average in tenderness,” Dikeman says.

So, don't look for easy answers, at least at this point.

“DNA analysis is informative. It will increase the accuracy of selection, and it could be a preliminary screening tool,” says Dikeman. “But it is not a quick and easy, silver-bullet approach — at least not in the near future.”

Dikeman says that just like birth or weaning weights, it's not likely that one single gene or marker determines an animal's palatability traits.

“Maybe in a year or so we can take a blood or hair sample and identify the animals that have the tendency to be favorable or unfavorable in a particular trait,” he says. “It probably won't be that simple, however. In two years or five years, though, it may be.”

But the study is already paying dividends for the participating breed associations. Based on data from the study, the Simmental and Simbrah associations have generated and published EPD data for Warner-Bratzler shear force values, an instrument measurement of tenderness, on more than 100 of their most widely used sires. A few other breeds are close to publishing tenderness EPDs, as well, Dikeman comments.

DNA tests will affect management as well as breeding decisions, says MARC's Koohmaraie. Genetics, he says, count for 30% or more of meat tenderness, and a DNA blood test for tenderness will be a useful tool.

“In the feedlot, we can screen all the calves for feed efficiency, carcass composition and meat quality, so we'll know how to manage and market them,” he says.

Identification's A Key

But — before any of these high-tech tools can work, you have to be able to tell which critter is which. The same goes for producers getting performance and carcass data back on their cattle.

Of course, there are electronic identification (EID) tags, both with bar codes and radio frequencies. The problem, Belk says, is that nothing so far is tamper-proof.

Retinal scanning technology will change that, he says. About to be released commercially, Belk says retinal scanning “is about as tamper-proof as you can get.”

Such a system would involve scanning the eyeball of each animal as its identification. Retinal patterns are like fingerprints. Each animal's is unique, Belk explains.

“This is CIA-type stuff,” Belk says. Once the animal's retina is scanned, “a global positioning system stamps the place and date on it. Then we can pass the information about the cattle and carcasses up and down the production chain.

For 10 years, Belk says, the admonishment to U.S. beef producers has been that one can't manage what one can't measure. All the new tools will allow producers, feeders, packers and retailers to now measure and manage. And hopefully make the product more marketable and profitable.

Becky Mills is a freelance writer based in Cuthbert, GA.

Case-Ready Is Safety-Ready

One of the biggest safety-boosters for beef is the trend toward case-ready products.

“The best thing case-ready technology does is move packaging from the backrooms of grocery stores upstream to centralized packaging plants,” says Keith Belk, Colorado State University animal scientist. “It reduces by 10 times or more the number of people who are actually handling the product.”

For example, Belk says if a batch of ground beef from one packer is going to 150 stores, as many as 600-700 people could handle it. With case-ready, that's reduced to one or two.

“I can't think of a major retailer who isn't using some case-ready ground beef,” Belk adds. “Steaks and roasts are moving in that direction. They don't want to take the risk of handling it.”

IBP's Brian McFarlane says case-ready provides source identification and eliminates the possibility of cross-contamination at the store level. Besides reducing the number of people handling the beef, the packaging itself is another safety boon.

IBP's Thomas E. Wilson line uses a high-oxygen, modified atmosphere, Belk explains. It replaces the air in the package with 80% oxygen and 20% carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide helps reduce the growth of bacteria. He says that buys the product extra shelf life — usually around 10 days, up from three to seven days with conventional packaging.

“That's long enough for the beef to get to the stores and be displayed long enough for somebody to buy it,” he says.

Another low-oxygen technology McFarlane likes that will provide 21-24 days of shelf life pulls the air out of the inside of the package and replaces it with a nitrogen/carbon dioxide mix. Scavengers in the mix hunt down oxygen left in the meat as soon as it escapes and gobbles it up.

There is another plus for case-ready technology — a major one for any consumer forced to clean up a refrigerator mess caused by a leaking package of thawed beef. “These packages are leak proof,” says McFarlane.

McFarlane also says case-ready beef gives retailers more time for customer service and merchandizing, since they are spending less time packaging products.

Belk says case-ready technology has benefited the beef industry by improving convenience, safety, efficiency and management.

“In five to 10 years, most of the beef will be sold as case-ready,” he says.

The economics of pledging allegiance

An age-old pearl of wisdom in the auction business still glitters fresh with truth: The more cattle you have to sell, the more buyers will show up to bid on them. And, the more buyers there are to bid on the cattle, the more cattle you get to sell next time. In other words, competition is a self-fulfilling reality, just like the lack of it.

A new cattle marketing pearl seemingly just taking shape, however, may prove just as worthy to contemplate: Markets you are used to selling your cattle through will likely lose or gain significant price competition in the near future.

Here's why. Philosophical bickering among individuals and groups within the beef industry appears to be scrawling indelible lines of belief in the sand. Sooner rather than later, crossing and not crossing these lines will likely impact the market.

For example, there's a camp represented by groups like the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA) and the Ranchers-Cattle Assistance Legal Fund (R-CALF). They seem to disagree with many of the trends afoot in the industry, trends like free international trade and capitalism without the benefit of legislation.

LMA has an ongoing legal battle to have the beef checkoff declared unconstitutional. And, both organizations publicly support legislation to ban packer ownership in the cattle feeding industry. That's even though economists predict passage of such legislation would immediately drain price and equity from the industry, both short- and long-term.

In addition, both trumpet the joys of mandatory country-of-origin labeling, something that may sound warm and fuzzy but likely also necessitates mandatory national cattle identification as a precursor.

On the other side of this philosophical divide you have the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and the Cattlemen's Beef Board, which administers the beef checkoff. Along with them are many state organizations and producers who rarely agree unanimously on anything. But they ardently believe in keeping government out, letting the markets determine who aligns with who and how come, and helping themselves through individual competitive spirit and collective self-help programs like the checkoff.

By now, if you're not at least irritated as you read about one group or the other, then you don't care. And if there's one thing both sides of this debate have in common it's that they care and believe strongly in what they believe.

Here's where allegiance as an emerging economic force comes in. Given the increasing division in the industry over fundamental economic principles and value beliefs, how long before buyers and sellers begin choosing service providers and suppliers based on which side of the fence they call home?

In fact, this reality was emerging long before construction of what many would argue is its most visible by-product thus far. A group of livestock marketers recently founded the Livestock Marketing Council (LMC) beneath the NCBA umbrella (see story on page 56).

The true reason and official word may indeed be that LMC offers marketers an alternative membership organization in a segment of the industry dominated for the past five decades by LMA. However, it's also true you can find current and former LMA members plumb giddy about having the chance to join an organization that not only represents them as individual marketers but also their collective value beliefs within the cattle industry.

So, how long before a feedlot won't buy from this sale barn or that order buyer because of the crowd they run with? How long before a cow/calf producer will sell to one buyer over another based on philosophy as much as price? Bet on it.

When the worm turns, and if it squirms even close to the apple described above, competition within and between these respective markets — separate industries, really — will shift dramatically and fast. Doors of former opportunity will be closed for some, while others will see them open wider.

Sell in a market where there used to be plenty of competition, and it may have fled. Ride with the “right” side, and you win big. Bounce along with the “losers,” and you might still win, but it will probably be on a whole 'nother whale-versus-water bug kind of level.

Spun differently, the philosophical fission at work in the industry may prove to accelerate the division of the cattle business into the distinct — rarely if ever shall they meet — commodity and value-added camps many industry players have long predicted.

Johnson amendment is a bad idea

How about this familiar scene from American action movies? Punches flying, the hero is mano a mano with the bad guy. Just as the hero gains the upper hand, a well-intentioned buddy grabs a lamp and tries to help him out but ends up braining him instead.

While Hollywood might label this scenario something like “Act III, scene 14,” the beef industry should call it “Farm Bill 2002, Johnson amendment.”

As you're reading this, U.S. House and Senate conferees are likely still wrangling out a decision on whether to include the so-called Johnson amendment in the final farm bill. The Johnson amendment is a measure in the Senate version of the farm bill that would ban the owning, feeding or controlling of hogs and cattle (less than 14 days from slaughter) by packers with more than 2% market share.

Proponents say such practices — by virtue of outright ownership of fed cattle or via production contracts and marketing agreements — depress overall producer market prices for livestock. This happens because packers with a portion of their raw materials already tied up in their pipeline don't bid as aggressively on the open market, they contend.

Most economists, however, say that studies show a very small negative association between captive supplies and producer prices, and the big gains proponents expect are very unlikely. Plus, they add, enacting such a measure would place the U.S. hog and cattle industries at a serious competitive disadvantage to foreign counterparts and the U.S. poultry industry, which would be unaffected by the Johnson amendment.

I'm no economist, but I tend to believe that free markets work best when left alone.

Remember the 1986 Dairy Termination Program that was supposed to dig U.S. taxpayers out of a $6-billion annual hole for surplus milk payments? Most economists warned it wouldn't work, but a tremendous groundswell of support for the idea convinced legislators to pass it.

The result was that U.S. beef producers suffered one of the worst market wrecks ever when culls saturated the beef market. And, as economists had predicted, the program failed to solve the dairy industry's over-production problem.

I relate this story as an example of the havoc that well-intentioned, but ill-conceived, legislative fixes can create.

So, 16 years later, the government is “back to help us.” This time, the Johnson amendment intends to reconstitute the beef industry as it was before the days of captive supply. As you might recall, that was a time when beef demand was at its peak, and two-parent families supported by a single wage earner, with a stay-at-home mom who loved to cook elaborate meals, was the norm.

That “Leave It To Beaver” world no longer exists. And, the beef industry has already paid a high price learning that lesson once.

For two decades, while consumers were increasingly clamoring for tasty, convenient, quick and easy-to-prepare beef products, the beef industry continued to churn out traditional beef products in traditional forms. Beef demand went into a 20-year freefall while the poultry industry addressed consumer desires and dramatically reversed its fortunes.

Over the past three years, the beef industry seemingly had learned the same lessons. Inter-sector cooperation allowed the industry to shift from a low-cost, commodity beef model to one of quality-controlled, convenient products. The beef demand slide leveled out and turned up.

A basic tenet of economics is that healthy markets are those that provide what consumers want. Consumers have made it clear that they want convenient, consistent, quality beef products at affordable prices. History has shown that a traditional commodity beef model can't meet those demands.

Now, after this dramatic progress and billions of dollars spent by producers and packers in building a system that communicates and rewards value, the Johnson amendment comes along. Risking the industry's recent progress on an emotional hunch unsupported by economic study is a bad way to do business and a lousy way to make law.

Does anyone else see a lamp coming toward the industry's head?

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Stokes Takes Command

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) has a new chief executive officer. Terry Stokes, 47, who previously served as NCBA's executive vice president and chief financial officer, assumed the position in March after serving as interim CEO since Chuck Schroeder's departure in February.

A search committee named by NCBA's Executive Committee (EC) recommended Stokes after reviewing 40 resumes and interviewing seven finalists. The EC unanimously accepted the recommendation.

As CEO, Stokes oversees NCBA staff and helps manage the organization's finances and day-to-day operations. He's responsible for accomplishing objectives defined by NCBA members and stakeholders.

Stokes' career spans all segments of the cattle and beef industry — including cow/calf, feeding and packing. A native Texan, he currently partners with his brother-in-law in a small stocker operation in south Texas. Before joining NCBA, Stokes was the executive vice president and chief financial officer for the Texas Beef Council.

Stokes has a degree in animal agriculture from Angelo State University and an MS in business administration with an emphasis in operations management and managerial accounting from the University of Texas. He and wife Beverly reside in Denver, CO, and have two children. Ryan, 16, is a high school sophomore, while Whitney, 19, is a freshman at Oklahoma Baptist University.

Risk Assessment Underway

Researchers at ARS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are beginning a three-year study of sources of exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, an insidious parasite.

The study will provide the first risk assessment of the likelihood of exposure to the parasite by ingesting raw or under-cooked meat, including beef, chicken and pork.

T. gondii is a single-cell parasite that infects about 23% of the U.S. population. People also can be exposed to the parasite through handling fruit and vegetables, soil or cat litter. The annual cost from both acute illnesses and complications due to toxoplasmosis is between $3.3 billion - $7.8 billion, according to the latest estimates from USDA's Economic Research Service.

The scientists are preparing to test 6,000 meat samples, and collaborators at the CDC are in the process of selecting 28 major U.S. metropolitan areas from which to take meat samples. The tests will provide a sense of how much T. gondii may be in meat and how that level differs throughout various regions of the country.

T. gondii's favorite hiding place in humans is inside brain and muscle tissue. Although healthy people other than pregnant women can weather T. gondii with few symptoms, it poses a risk to developing fetuses and to persons with depressed immune systems.

For more information, contact ARS at 301/504-1617.