Storms have been brewing for the last several years in various sectors of U.S. agriculture, but for the last few months, the winds have really begun to blow and the seas have become turbulent among those who make their living in animal husbandry. No one has felt the effects more than our Cattlemen and Ranchers, (especially cow/calf operators), Dairymen, and Pork Producers. In the current environment, even Chicken Farmers (broilers and layers) are feeling the pain, as are fruit and vegetable Produce Farmers who cannot harvest their crops.
Social media is full of chatter about the price discrepancies between retail prices and what growers are getting for their animals on the farm. Sad to say, pigs and chickens are being euthanized, eggs are not being hatched, milk is being dumped, and cows and stockers are being backlogged on farms and in feedyards. There is nowhere to take the animals and products to sell at a price that is equal to or greater than what it costs to produce them. However, for many, the sale price (minus the costs of production) is a producers income for the entire year!
Row Crop Farmers have their own problems. and I am not one, but their challenges are somewhat unlike those in animal husbandry. It may not be profitable, but it is possible to bale and hold cotton. They can temporarily store most nuts, beans and grain in hopes for better prices within the next year. What one cannot do is continue to hold live animals on the farm where they require feed, water, space, care, treatment and other resources on a daily basis--especially when the next crop of offspring have already been born or are on their way--or for the dairymen, the next milking is coming this afternoon!
Sad to say, the media is also full of the misguided ideas and the fallacies that people have about animal husbandry and farming in general. One of my favorites on Facebook said: "I don't know why farmers that have cows don't just give them away during the shortage. All they have in them is air, water and grass, and all that is free." Another favorite I cannot quote word for word, but it said something to the affect: 'Why don't farmers just sell us some meat from the farm. They have plenty of it.' That sounds simple so simple. Right?
For years, we have sold packaged meat cuts and cattle on the hoof for processing off the Cattle For Christ farm. We have never been able to sell as much as we would have like to for several reasons. First of all, until the recent shortages in the meat departments of grocery stores, few people--even in the south, have deep freezers large enough to hold a half or whole beef as we did in the past. Instead, we eat out or buy what we want for the week from the grocer. This trend, along with a lesser desire to eat leftovers, is what first encouraged feedyards and processors to grow smaller carcasses and showcase portion size cuts and packages in boxed beef. When my brother Steve and I were growing up, when we could get a sirloin, it hung off both ends of a platter! Unless you raise your own or purchase a cow for butcher, you cannot find steaks this size anymore!
Another reason why selling beef off the farm has been difficult is that few people in the past have been willing to spend the money to pay for a half or whole beef at one time. It has been easier to spend what you want to spend on the cuts you want for the week than it has been to write one $1,500-& $2,000 check for the entire cow and the processing fees.
The third reason why selling beef off the farm is more difficult than people realize, has to do with health regulations. We can only legally sell to the public, live cattle on the hoof. If a cow is sold and divided into quarters or halves at processing, the relative portions must have been owned by the buyers while the animal was still alive and evidence must exist to prove this. The animal must also be processed at a USDA inspected custom processing plant. Each package of meat has to be stamped "For Custom Use Only. Not For Sale".
To sell packaged meat from the farm on a retail basis, the live animal and the entire processing, has to be inspected at a USDA approved facility, by a USDA Inspector. It is illegal for a Farmer or Rancher to sell packaged meat any other way. To sell retail, we are also required to have our own retail inspection brand name or we have to use the retail inspection brand name of the processor, which they may charge extra for. Every retail package must include the contents and weight of the package.
With the current shortage in the meat departments of grocers, some uninformed consumers expect to go to the farm and just pick up a grain-fed steer. The problem with this goes back to all of the other challenges we have already discussed, plus some additional ones. If a farmer does not have slaughter cattle either already presold or is pretty certain that he will be able to sell them at just the right time that they finish, he will most likely not have any on feed. He will instead have sold them before they got to the size and age to feed out.
A grain fed steer needs to be on feed an average of 120-170 days or longer, depending on the size they are at weaning and the size they need to be at harvest. Nobody can afford to spend hundreds of dollars to feed out a steer when they may or may not be able to get their money back. The chance of someone coming along at just the right time looking for a grain fed steer off the farm is just too slim, especially before the current shortage. This shortage is not a shortage of cattle, it is a shortage of cattle being processed!
Grass fed beef offers a little more flexibility for both the farmer and the buyer, especially if only ground beef or other leaner cuts are preferred. For the average beef producer who does not intentionally raise grass fed beef, cull cows and bulls will produce only ground beef. To have the greatest chance of getting the more tender cuts from grass fed beef, the meat would need to come from a 15-20 month old heifer that perhaps did not conceive and needed to be culled by the producer. However, for farmers who target the grass fed market, steers are often retained at weaning and grown out specifically on grass until they are 1100-1200 pounds. You will not likely find a steer that meets this criteria from a farmer that had not planned ahead to sell a steer specifically to someone looking for a grass fed carcass.
As I write this, choice boxed beef (price from processor to retailer) is 461.40 (3.5 times what it was just 3 weeks ago), up from 223.49 at the same time period last year. Fed cattle prices (fat cattle ready to process from the feedyard) are only 98.18 cents per pound , down from $1.20 per pound at the same time last year.
Prices for our 'value added' feeder steers are down from $1.55 per pound in 2018 and from $1.50 per pound last year, to $1.16 per pound this year, ($307 per head decrease from 2018 and $270 decrease from 2019), all while packers are charging grocers and restaurants more than double what they were at the same time last year. Part of this increase is passed on to the consumer and the rest is taken away from us--the cow/calf producers. Every day we hold backlogged cattle on the farm, the more dollars we lose. The same is true for feedlots to a degree, but we are the only sector that has no little or no input on what we are paid for our animals.
Keep in mind that for our calves to qualify as "value added", they have to be castrated and healed, dehorned if needed and healed, de-wormed at least twice, vaccinated for various diseases and viruses at least twice, weaned and fed for at least 60 days post weaning, and be within roughly a 50 pound range up or down of the projected average for the truckload.
I say all this to say that the U.S. cow/calf producers, (the lowest on the food chain in the beef cattle industry), do all we can do to produce the highest quality, healthiest and safest beef products in the world for our consumers. For most progressive breeders this is our priority, but we are at the mercy of every other level of the industry (especially the packers).
We are also penalized by unfair trade practices that allow imports of cattle and meats into the U.S. from countries who produce inferior, less regulated products at a fraction of the costs that we have invested in ours. These hundreds of thousands of imported cattle, in addition to the billions of pounds of imported beef cuts, flood our markets and keep our farm prices low and our ability to be profitable unattainable--all while prices at that market are at record highs.
If you want to purchase farm raised beef directly from the farm, and I encourage you to do so, plan ahead and do your research. Build a relationship with the Farmer or Rancher. Talk with prior customers about their past experiences. Purchase a freezer. Talk with a processor about the various cuts and cutting orders that you will have to choose from. Ensure the meat is fast frozen before you pick it up, and feel free to call me if you have any questions.
I write this article every month to encourage you and to offer you the eternal hope, peace and life found only in Jesus Christ. I also try to apply some of the unchanging truths of God's written Word to everyday life on the farm. This article is different, but I hope that it helps you to be better prepared and that you help others to be the same. Harder times could be on the horizon, but because HE lives, we can face tomorrow. He is our strength, our hope, our refuge and our salvation! He loves and cares for you!