A pitch for getting more ranchers to produce higher-quality beef

Sep 5, 2012

As part of a new project called “Quality Beef by the Numbers,”  the University of Missouri is hoping to get more cow-calf operators in Missouri and neighboring states to produce higher-quality beef from their herds. The university says the move, announced in Columbia, Mo., last week, will make ranchers more money.

“The prime [grade] premiums can easily add $200 to $300 per animal,” said Dr. Scott Brown, a research assistant professor in the university's Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Brown has worked on getting “Quality Beef” off the ground with a team of researchers for the past several years. They decided to launch the initiative now in part because consumers are willing to pay more for prime grade steaks than they were in the past. Production hasn’t kept up with demand, which could mean more money in producers’ pockets.

The United States Department of Agriculture uses variables like a cow’s marbling and maturity to determine what grade to give a cut of beef -- prime (which is the highest), choice, select or standard (the lowest). Packers and feed lots, in response to consumer demand, have been paying more for top-quality cuts. But while some ranchers know which of their cows will produce higher-quality meat, many producers do not, according to Brown.

“They lose track of them [the calves] once they’re sold,” he said. “And they don’t know what that animal looks like when it hangs on the rail.”

Ranchers who sign up to participate in “Quality Beef” will learn what high-quality calves look like with help from animal scientists, feed service companies and cattle associations. They’ll also learn strategies to produce top-quality beef from the ground up, like making use of cattle genetics, the latest reproductive technologies and feeding and management techniques, from high-quality producers already in the business. Some of the companies the university has partnered with include Irsik and Doll Feed Services Inc. and Pratt Feeders LLC in Kansas, Accelerated Genetics and Genex Cooperative Inc. in Wisconsin, Select Sires MidAmerica in Kentucky and Certified Angus Beef in Ohio.

Brown hopes, beyond getting producers more money, that “Quality Beef” will also have a positive economic effect on the cow-calf industry over time.

“Crop prices have moved up substantially. So there’s a lot of demand in this state for land to move from cow-calf production to maybe corn production,” he said. “So we need more value back from that individual animal to try to make it competitive for a cow-calf system relative to a grain farmer.”

The university has had some success with raising top-quality cattle at its Thompson Research Center in Spickard, Mo. Thirty-one percent of a group of steers raised there got prime grade ratings. The national average for cattle graded prime at processing plants is just over three percent.

Brown admits that getting producers on board with a new program that would require an investment of time and money is a tough sell, especially during a drought. The university hasn't yet signed any ranchers up for the program. Producers most likely to participate will be those who are already in the high-quality beef business. But Brown maintains that the program will help ranchers decide which cow to sell if they are culling their herd this winter due to the drought and the market’s record-high feed prices.

“If, all the sudden, I want to make a choice based on the quality or the profitability that cow has provided me the last few years, we’re going to help producers make some better choices,” Brown said.