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U.S. cow herd rebuilding provides opportunity for new thinking

The U.S. beef industry is confronted with a significant long-term decline in cattle numbers driven in part by record input costs and severe drought conditions in many major cattle-producing states. These recent challenges only add to the long-term issues the industry has faced, which include an aging producer population, increased global competition, increased competition from other meat proteins, weak domestic demand for beef, and a perceived lack of economic incentives to expand the cattle herd.

D. S. Brown and D. J. Patterson of the University of Missouri, Columbia, explained in a presentation prepared for the 2014 JAM in Kansas City that while the industry has been able to move toward more consistency in beef products over the last three decades, major strides are still left to be made given less than 5% of today's cattle grade Prime. In comparison with other domestic livestock sectors in the U.S., they said, tradition and segmentation within the U.S. cattle industry has hindered the adoption of newer production and marketing strategies.

The researchers suggested that coordination of the various industry segments (cow-calf, stocker, feedyard, processor) with allied industry (AI companies, seed stock suppliers, feed and pharmaceutical industries) offers the potential to enhance technology adoption and contribute to increases in production efficiency.

As the U.S. cattle industry moves to rebuild its declining numbers, the focus of much of the industry will turn to heifer retention and appropriate practices related to beef heifer development. While comparatively, today's marketing grids are more focused on quality, Brown and Patterson explained that these grids generally require cow-calf producers to maintain some ownership stake in the cattle through the feedyard. Producers who have invested in developing higher quality cattle and beef in the past often found genetic improvement to be slow and inconsistent, which often times reduced economic incentives of quality focus. The technologies that have come online over the past few years and new genomic advances on the horizon appear poised to rapidly increase genetic improvement and consistency, they said.

The combination of better market incentives for higher quality beef, coupled with technologies that allow producers to more easily invest in genetics focused on quality, provide the industry a unique opportunity to increase the cow herd with a more refined focus on the genetic potential of the herd as it relates to efficiency and higher quality, the researchers said. Additionally, they said, it would appear these technologies have the added value of reducing producer risk by providing more consistency in the beef produced.  By Sarah Muirhead

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