Cattle producers have a steak in the business, but what about a stake?
By: Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension
All cattle producers classify as having a steak in the cattle business. They own, raise, care for, or market live cattle. Cattlemen are passionate about ranch life, their breed of cattle, the shape their cows are in, the health of newly-arrived feeder calves, and they are committed to producing a healthy, high-performing animal that will result in a great steak!
But, how many have a stake in the cattle business? As I have had the opportunity to travel and talk with different people it is clear to me that many American consumers are hungry for more than just the taste of beef. They are hungry to know when, where, and how their food is produced and why it is produced that way.
I have said many times in front of cattlemen and cattlewomen "Consumers are more removed from agriculture now than ever before." While I still believe this, for perspective I think it is important that we allow the tables to turn… Cattle producers are vastly removed from the consumer. Think about it. The cow/calf producer markets to the sale barn, who markets to the buyer, who markets to the backgrounder, who markets to the feedlot, who markets to the packer, who markets to the wholesaler, who markets to the retailer, who markets to the consumer.
There may be more or less steps in the above process depending on your farm, but for the vast majority of cattle produced, the system creates distance between the farmer and the consumer. As a result, it is not clear to the consumer when, where, how, and why our cattle are produced the way they are. We are quick to blame agenda-driven groups for confusing consumers with false claims of how meat is produced (which they do), but we easily ignore the fact that our own production system builds walls that limit transparency to the details of our production methods.
On top of this, cattle producers live in rural areas. We live "in the country." We have dirt on our clothes. We don't go to town to shop… we get. Then we go back to the country and enjoy the privacy… away from the busy urban environment. Our personality and preference is generally not to engage as we see it as prying. These innate characteristics of a farmer lend to less transparency.
While price is a large determinant of whether the consumer buys beef, there are plenty of consumers that are willing to pay for information and a connection with a farmer. The local foods movement, freezer beef, and "story" beef are good examples. When I toured a Whole Foods grocery store with the Illinois Young Beef Leaders group, it was obvious some consumers were seeking more information. In some cases the added information was coupled with organic production, however, in others the meat product was just production-practice-documented and traceable to a farm.
It is becoming more evident to me that we have a responsibility to inform the consumer about our product to remain a player in the meat case. In current commodity beef production, a strong global market has supported prices for our product. I believe world population lends to a long-term bullish outlook for agriculture and beef. However, my concern lies in the lack of transparency of our industry and the effect that that is having on the American consumer, the American voter, and ultimately the legislature. If lawmakers truly represent their constituents, then we as farmers need to be mindful of the relationship that voters have with our production of their food. I think the disconnect with the consumer will lead to increasing regulations based on emotion instead of science. This is already happening and unfortunately becoming trend. This will add cost to our product. That hurts the consumer, especially those in lower income brackets that spend a greater percentage of their income on food.
My hope is that my experiences can help shed some light on what I feel is a concern for our "business." After all, raising cattle is sometimes hard to describe as a business. The cow/calf sector is historically break-even. Backgrounders and feedyards are a margin business, however they mostly use cattle to turn grass or grain into a sellable product and make little money off of the cattle trade. Cattle farms are more than finances and business balance sheets. Cattle farms are about raising a family and allowing future generations to raise their family the same way. They are about a person's livelihood, their pride, and their life's work. Even in plentiful times, the loss of a calf, a drought, and just being at the mercy of Mother Nature is a risky proposition. But, the ability to raise children on a farm, show them the meaning of hard work, respect, and teach the lessons of everyday life through experiences on the farm is more than enough for families to keep investing in cattle farming.
It is time to embrace the reason you are in the cattle business. Set stake in the cattle business by telling your story. Invest in those that tell this story. Talk about raising your children and being involved with family. Discuss the values that the farm is the foundation for building. With the true message of cattle farming, the consumer will forever embrace beef as the number one choice in the meat counter.