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Articles from 2009 In April

The Time To Be Bullish Is Now!

Sure, there have been books written on the power of group think. And, with the global economy heading in the wrong direction, there’s a whole lot more pessimism than optimism out there. However, I would argue that when one looks with any form of long-term outlook at this cattle business, it’s nearly impossible to be anything but bullish.

Now for those who are inclined to lean toward the half-empty glass, I can almost nearly hear your sighs. Your first thought is probably something like “I wish I could get some of the Kool-Aid that this guy is drinking.” Sure, rising input costs, increased government regulation, environmental challenges, animal welfare concerns and shrinking disposable incomes are very real. So are issues like debt, deficits, inflation and a weakening dollar.

I’m not ignoring these issues. In fact, I’d argue that rising energy, land and input costs are almost a given moving forward. Nor am I at all optimistic about the current populist trends against free enterprise, capitalism and private property rights. And the record deficits and the shift of the U.S. economy toward a European socialist model are anything but positive.

Still, the place to be is agriculture and we are looking forward to some very good times. If the global recession turns around, and America maintains its competitive advantages, then we are looking forward to one heck of a run.

Global demand for beef will explode; supplies are tight, and we have made great strides in closing the competitive gap between the beef industry and other protein sources. If the global recession and political opportunists create a situation where populist and socialist solutions are advanced, the only place to be is in agriculture.

Record deficits, a declining dollar and inflation can all be construed as being relative positives. Commodity prices will rise, land values will increase, and the cattle industry will benefit from a declining dollar in the global marketplace.

No one is more bearish than me on the current prospects for the U.S. economy and the demise of industrial democracies as a whole. For the first time in my life, if I were forced to bet on the West or Asia as being the dominant economic force in the 21st century, I’d probably against us. However, those economies translate into tremendous growth opportunities for U.S. beef.

And regardless of our own economic situation, we’re seeing growing demand for scarce resources, which will drive commodity and land values higher.

The abandonment of U.S. fiscal responsibility and growing global demand won’t be a bad thing for the cattle industry or agriculture. If we return from the precipice, it’s positive for beef; if we jump off the precipice, it’s positive for beef.

Now is the time to be bullish because no matter which side of the fence you’re standing on relative to the overall economy, the beef industry is poised to benefit.

USDA Releases NAIS Benefit-Cost Analysis

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released its “Benefit-Cost Analysis of the National Animal Identification System” this week. The 442-page study provides a comprehensive assessment of benefits and costs of adopting a National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Access it at:

APHIS also published a 30-page overview report that provides a summary of the analysis’ key points. Access it at:

The report estimates that a typical beef-cow operation would incur a $3.92/cow bookend adoption cost and a $4.22/cow full-tracing cost. A bookend system refers to identifying the animal individually or in group/lot fashion at its birth premises and then terminating the record at the packing plant when the animal is processed, with no intermittent tracing or recording of animal movement. A full tracing system refers to the bookend plus also tracing and recording movements of animals (individually or by group depending on species) through their lifetime as they change ownership.

Regarding other segments of the beef industry (i.e., backgrounders, feedlots, auction markets, and packers), the report estimates much smaller costs than the cow sector because these sectors’ main costs are replacing lost tags for a bookend and incurring scanning costs for full tracing.

Noteworthy findings include:

  • Under NAIS, federal and state governments’ savings in connection with the administration of animal disease control and eradication programs are significant, but only part of the overall benefits.
  • Economic benefits in both the domestic and international marketplace resulting from enhanced traceability may be greater than the cost savings realized during animal disease control and eradication efforts.
  • For industry, the effect of not implementing some aspects of NAIS (maintaining the status quo) may result in significant losses – as great as $13.2 billion annually due to reduced export market access.
  • Implementation of NAIS becomes more cost effective as participation levels increase and actually may not be economically viable at lower participation levels.
  • The cattle industry cost represents 91.5% of the total cost of NAIS for the primary food animal species (cattle, sheep, swine, and poultry).
  • ID tags and tagging cattle represent 75% of the cattle sector’s annual adoption cost.
  • Tags and tagging costs vary among cattle producers with 50 head from $3.30 to $5.22/cow, depending on current ID practices.
  • The total cost for implementing NAIS in the cattle sector is $175.9 million annually (at a 90% participation level). That cost is less than 0.5% of the retail value of U.S. beef products.
  • The swine and poultry industries each have a lower cost because animal tracing requirements for these species require less infrastructure and often no individual ID devices.
  • Traceability is becoming a global standard that will likely affect the ability of the U.S. to compete globally.
-- From USDA reports

Swine Flu: A Virus With An Unfortunate Name

With the latest worldwide health scare – this time not SARS or West Nile virus or avian influenza or BSE, but swine flu (H1N1) – modern technology has proven its efficiency and curse. True, technology means responses and tracking of disease are quicker and those tasked with keeping it under control are better equipped. But despite technology’s ability to provide almost up-to-the-second info on outbreaks, too often that info is simply wrong.

The current swine flu situation, pushed relentlessly by a breathless media and propagated by a freaked-out, largely clueless public, is a case in point. Whether intentionally provided, or not, incorrect info has consequences. Even as government officials and scientists, livestock organizations and farmers repeatedly point out that H1N1 has been found in no pigs and pork isn’t a vector for the virus, pork markets have plummeted.

And is it any wonder? Incredibly, this is the first question asked of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during an April 29 press conference held to highlight the first 100 days of the new administration: “I’m sorry to divert from the subject here, but I have a swine flu question. I just want to find out if you guys are comfortable with the amount of information you’re getting from Mexico in terms of the virus being found at hog farms? Are you doing any of your own investigations about whether pigs can spread the virus? What are you guys doing…”

Vilsack, clearly irritated, cut the reporter off and said he was “tempted to refuse to answer any questions (so) phrased. This is not a food-borne illness and isn’t necessarily related to swine. We’re very insistent on referring to this as the H1N1 virus. The consistent repeating of ‘swine’ makes a difference and is affecting and impacting markets negatively. We want to make sure we get over that.”

He continued: “This is not about pork products, about pork, about the safety of pork, about whether you can eat pork, or not. You can, it’s safe and we want to reinforce that message.

“As it relates to information, we are making a concerted effort to reach out to all 50 states, to state veterinarians, to state agriculture departments, to make sure there is constant surveillance so we can detect or determine any problem with our own swine herd.

“We’re working with our Canadian and Mexican partners to make sure there’s a full exchange of information. We’re also sending staff to Mexico – as is the case with a number of agencies of the federal government – in order to ensure we get reliable, accurate information as quickly as possible.”

Asked what issues he’s faced on H1N1, Tom Troxel, Arkansas Extension professor of animal science, says “just the name ‘swine flu’ indicates that swine is the source of this influenza virus. That isn’t the case. This virus isn’t spread by food – something pork producers are certainly trying to explain to the public. There were some early reports that claimed otherwise and those were wrong.”

H1N1 is spreading through human-to-human contact. In fact, one of the main concerns of U.S. officials now is not allowing humans to infect the swine herd.

“I know Mid-South folks are being very vigilant about that,” says Robert Felsman, Arkansas Extension livestock specialist. “Nowadays, these diseases seem to be just a plane trip away from us. If anyone comes down with flu-like symptoms, they need to stay away from pork operations and get to the doctor to be checked out.

“The next few weeks will tell the tale. Will this be limited or turn into something major? Hopefully, it will peter out.”

One thing that makes Arkansas different from other states is “probably better than 98% – certainly more than 95% of the industry – are contract hogs with Tyson or other companies. Arkansas is just about out of independent producers.”

Asked for comment, a Tyson Foods spokesman says “preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs. …In fact, according to the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris, the virus has not been isolated in animals to date. Therefore, it is not justified to name this disease ‘swine influenza.’”

While Tyson Foods does have poultry operations in Mexico, it doesn’t have pork-processing facilities or hog farms there. Regardless, no live pigs are shipped from Mexico into the U.S.

Reached on April 28, Jennifer Greiner, a veterinarian and director of science and technology for the National Pork Producers Council, reiterated that “pork is safe. You can’t get swine influenza from eating pork. As long as pork products are handled and cooked properly, they’re safe to eat.

“The pork industry has asked producers to step up their biosecurity and that we do our due diligence when testing for swine influenzas as well as other diseases on our pig farms.”

The term “swine flu” is misleading, Greiner says. “The reason we’re caught up in calling it a ‘swine’ influenza is because H1N1 was first found in pigs. Whatever species the virus is first found in is how it’s labeled. H5N1 was ‘avian’ influenza because it was first found in birds.”

H1N1 has genes from swine influenza, an avian influenza and a human influenza. “It’s a real combination of a lot of viruses. That’s something that’s seen in influenza viruses” and isn’t uncommon.

How easy would it be for H1N1 to move from humans into swine?

“The pigs have a better chance of picking up an influenza virus from humans than (vice-versa). Part of our recommendation to producers is they step up biosecurity in their barns. They need to pay a little more attention” to things such as:

  • International travel by workers. “If a worker has been traveling internationally, ask where they were,” Grenier says.
  • Swine operation employees going to work while ill. “If someone comes to work with flu symptoms – fever, aches and pains – send them home. That will stop them giving the pigs the influenza virus.”
Make no mistake: a pandemic is coming and governments are right to prepare. Viruses mutate and evolve and some day; when dark stars align just right, the globe will face a massive test.

But promoting – or even buying into – a near panic at the outset of every animal disease outbreak is counterproductive to a measured, rational approach. Pork producers, currently watching their markets tank over a virus with an unfortunate name, know this all too well.

Detailed info and updates on the flu outbreak are available at:
-- David Bennett, Farm Press

Do Cattle Harbor Temperament Hints In Their Eyes?

The June edition of Mike Baker’s Beef Cattle Comments from Cornell University carried an item on temperament rating of cattle. Sarah Core, a University of Guelph master’s student, reported on a study evaluating use of the amount of white in cattle eyes as a measure of temperament.

Temperamental cattle are both dangerous and frustrating to handle. Besides being a danger to themselves, other animals and to their handlers, injuries can affect carcass value.

Research at the University of Guelph indicates the percentage of revealed eye white in cattle can be used as a predictor of temperament. Eye white evaluations were conducted at the Elora Beef Research Station on bulls, steers and heifers as a graduate research project.

A digital camera was set up near the squeeze chute to capture an image of the animal's eye. Video recording then took place while the animals were run through the chute. Images were then stored and analyzed to assess the amount of eye white revealed by each animal.

Flight speed was measured and chute score evaluations were also conducted. The results of these analyses showed that percentage of eye white had a significant positive correlation with both temperament scoring and flight speed.

Easy and inexpensive, this system offers a physical measurement vs. a behavioral scoring. Plus, the digital image records can be used or re-analyzed at a later date, the researcher says.

Since this measurement is reliable and highly correlated with temperament, percent eye white is a good tool for identifying animals that should be implemented in intensive selection programs for temperament, Core says.

See the newsletter at:
-- Cornell University Beef Cattle Letter

Ready for a Fresh Start

As you all know, I will be graduating this May. As this is the last week of April, I only have a few classes and a couple of final exams before I walk across the stage as a college graduate. Over the past year, I have done some serious soul searching trying to figure out which path I should choose in order to reach my future goals. With that being said, my priorities danced between my career, my passion for production agriculture and my love of family. I'm sure some of you are wondering what my plans are post-graduation, but you will have to tune in next week to get the scoop. Looking back over the past few months, I really wasn't sure where I wanted to end up. I was a mess as I listed the pros and cons of every job opportunity and every career path I could potentially pursue. There is a quote that I hung above my desk to help me out during those times when I questioned myself and my abilities, and I think it might help you, too!

"God helps those that help themselves. Act as if everything depended on you, and pray as if everything depended on God."

I know that agriculture has had its ups and downs in the last year, and I'm saddened by the growing number of farmers and ranchers that exit the business. It seems that at every turn, there is a new piece of legislation, a different media article or another consumer report that hinders our ability to do our jobs as food producers. While it's hard to stay positive in tough times, I think it's more important now than ever before to stay optimistic and keep our heads held high. Don't give up and don't give in. With time, things will start to look up again. In the meantime, pray to God for strength and look within for action. Don't stand on the sidelines while the world changes around you; make the time to change it for yourself. I may be an optimistic college student with an idealistic outlook on life, but I think with faith, optimism and enthusiasm, anything is possible.

Stay tuned next week for a full disclosure of my plans after graduation. This was a huge decision for me, and I'm excited to share it with all of you! It's definitely a risky move on my part, and I hope you will approve and send your words of support! I'm ready for my fresh start! I hope you all have a productive, positive remainder of the week and weekend! -Amanda

Quick BEEF Daily Fact: Two-thirds of family-owned agricultural businesses never make it past the second generation. Is that destiny or a choice? (BEEF Magazine, January 2009, You Replacing You By: Wes Ishmael)

New York Times on New Beef Cuts

ON a stainless steel table in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association test kitchen, a meat scientist named Bridget Wasser began dissecting a piece of beef shoulder as big as a couch cushion.

Her knife danced between long, thick muscles, then she flipped the whole thing open like book. After a tug and one final slice, she set before her visitor the Denver steak.

The three-quarter-inch-thick cut is an inexpensive, distant cousin of the New York strip. And it didn’t exist until the nation’s 800,000 cattle ranchers began a radical search for cuts of meat that consumers would buy besides steaks and ground beef.

The idea was simple. Dig around in the carcass and find muscles that, when separated and sliced in a certain way, were tender and tasty enough to be sold as a steak or a roast. “People know how to cook steaks,” said Dave Zino, executive director of the cattlemen’s Beef and Veal Culinary Center.

The Denver was invented after meat and marketing experts spent more than $1.5 million and five years on the largest study anyone had ever done on the edible anatomy of a steer.

The point was to increase the $15.5 billion a year that people spend at the supermarket buying beef. The association thinks consumers may pay $5.99 a pound for a Denver steak. As ground beef, it’s about $2.99.

To read the entire article, link to Severson's report at New York Times.

Updated USDA Statement By Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Regarding H1N1 Flu Outbreak

“I want to reiterate that U.S. pork is safe. While we in the U.S. are continuing to monitor for new cases of H1N1 flu, the American food supply is safe.

There is no evidence or reports that U.S. swine have been infected with this virus. USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is reminding its trading partners that U.S. pork and pork products are safe and there is no basis for restricting imports of commercially produced U.S. pork and pork products.

This is not an animal health or food safety issue. This discovery of the H1N1 flu virus is in humans. Any trade restrictions would be inconsistent with World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) guidelines.

According to OIE, because the current H1N1 flu related human health event has been described as swine influenza, the OIE announced that there has been no infection in animals confirmed in the zones where cases of human infection have been detected. Therefore, it is not necessary to introduce specific measures for international trade in swine or their products, nor are consumers of pork products at risk of infection.

United States Trade Representative Ambassador Kirk urged all trading partners to base any food safety measures taken to protect their populations on scientific evidence and in accordance with their international obligations. In a statement, Kirk said that ‘restrictions on U.S. pork or pork products or any meat products from the United States resulting from the recent outbreak do not appear to be based on scientific evidence and may result in serious trade disruptions without cause.’

To our trading partners, I would say again that our pork and pork products are safe.”

Livestock Producers to Get Help

Legislators are expected to approve $1 million for a loan program to help livestock producers rebuild their herds, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.

An estimated 91,000 heads of livestock, which includes 72,000 calves, died this winter as a result of the statewide snow and flood disasters. The lost value is estimated to be about $55 million, which is likely to increase, Goehring said.

Lawmakers included the $1 million in the Industrial Commission budget for the AgPace loan program to help farmers and ranchers get back on their feet. The bill, SB2014, is in conference committee.

The loan will be administered by the Bank of North Dakota and will offer producers up to $20,000 if they can prove financial loss because of the disasters. The loan includes an interest buy down of 5 percent for qualified farmers and ranchers to help them buy new cattle and material to build fences and corrals.

Goehring said other federal assistance programs for livestock producers who suffered losses are still pending.

For more information about the program, state officials urge farmers and ranchers to contact their local lender. See Bismarck Tribune for more information.

All Eyes on 'North American Flu'

539w.jpg You don't have to have a barn full of hogs to worry about the implications the recent swine flu epidemic will have on consumer confidence in agriculture and food safety. While it's safe to say that this flu strain doesn't come from pork products or live pigs, the misconception is there, and our friends in swine production are taking the heat. Yesterday, I kept close watch on the media coverage of the swine flu, and I have compiled a list of headlines worth taking a look at. Find out how the Humane Society of the United States is capitalizing over the growing panic of this flu, similar to their fear-mongering tactics with SARS, BSE and bird flu. Read how pork producers are keeping their hogs safe from this consumer illness. Educate yourself with the facts to avoid catching this flu. Finally, say a prayer for those that have been infected with this illness and that public health officials continue to keep us safe. What are your concerns about the swine flu, both as a producer and as a consumer? What is the word in your area about this outbreak?

Animal Activists Capitalize on Swine Flu Hysteria...For animal rights activists at the Humane Society of the United States, the opportunity to use “swine flu” to scare American meat-eaters was apparently too tempting to resist.

Swine Flu Fears Hit Wall Street ...Economists talk about the implications of a swine flu outbreak on the U.S. economy and other market issues.

Hog farmers fear: not germs, but consumers...The swine flu has filled the area's hog farmers with fear — not that they will catch a deadly disease from their animals, but that grocery shoppers will become needlessly afraid of buying their product.

Pork Producers Protecting Precious Livestock...No Reported U.S. Hogs Infected By Swine Flu

Indiana State Veterinarian says Swine Flu Not Affecting Pork Products...It’s been originally dubbed swine flu, but unfortunately that may have some unintended consequences for our swine industry.

What is swine influenza? Flu mutates constantly, so it is common for new strains to emerge. Pigs can also be infected with both human and avian influenza, and the current circulating swine flu strain appears to contain genetic elements from all three.

History Says Avoid Virus Hysteria... Let the public health experts freak out about swine flu. The rest of us should relax.

Quick BEEF Daily Fact: Still looking for more information on the North American Flu? The Center for Disease Control has the facts to answer all of your questions and concerns. Example Q&A: Can people catch swine flu from eating pork? No. Swine influenza viruses are not transmitted by food. You can not get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products.