Ohio’s BEEF Cattle letter; 1000 Issues Later, Some’s Changed, Other Stuff Not So Much

Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County OSU Extension

When I began this newsletter I was asked if there was really enough going on within the business of raising beef cattle that warranted a local weekly Extension publication. Perhaps the best way I can answer today is simply, twenty years and 1000 issues later we’re still doing it. While many things about this industry have actually changed little over the years, it seems that there’s always something new impacting what some of us might think to be the ‘same old, same old.’

Today, we certainly understand things like forage digestibility, ruminant nutrition, reproduction, predicting genetic outcomes, carcass fabrication and effectively utilizing new technologies within the industry better than ever. As we move forward, advances in these an other areas of production will continue at an even greater pace than observed the past 20 years. Despite those advances, perhaps the greatest change during the past two decades comes from the consumer side of the business.

If you think about it, it’s easy to see why this might be true. Do you remember when nearly everyone had a friend, neighbor or relative with their own farm raised eggs, fresh from the farm raised meat, or milk straight from the cooler that you’d make your own ice cream from? What about the days when no one questioned your livestock or crop management practices, didn’t question why you treated sick animals with antibiotics, and simply knew that if you were feeding it to your family, it was equally safe and nutritious for their family? In fact, perhaps you recall when the drink cup at your favorite fast food restaurant was imprinted with only the logo of the restaurant, and not a rant about how the owners of the restaurant think we should manage our livestock!

Unless you’re at least 40 or maybe even 50+ years of age, you may not recall those days. That said perhaps the most significant change over the past 20 years is that consumers of our product are now one more generation removed from the farm it’s grown on, and may not be certain today of who they should believe when it comes to understanding our animal husbandry practices.

Despite being the 4th fastest growing Ohio county, much of Fairfield County is still relatively rural. In fact, more than half of our entire land mass is still under cultivation. Yet, when nearly 100 of the county’s elementary school aged youth attending last year’s AGventures Summer Day camp were asked where their hamburgers originate from, none got it right the first time. The answers ranged from McDonald’s to Krogers. Not wanting to single out the kids, it’s doubtful most of their parents even understand the reason they can pick up most any cut of beef they want from the local meat counter on the way home from work is because a cattleman made a conscious management decision more than two years earlier to breed a cow and continue the production cycle.

In September of 1996 when I began this publication there was no Ohio Livestock Standards Board. Livestock Quality Assurance wasn’t taught to every 4-H and FFA member . . . repeatedly . . . each and every year of their involvement in a livestock production project. The phrase “social license to farm” didn’t exist! Few had cell phones for talking, much less taking photos or videos, and we didn’t use the word ‘social’ before media. We used it instead after the words ICE CREAM! In those days a talk show TV personality had yet to offer her thoughts – negative and influential as they were – on the wholesomeness of beef, ultimately costing cattlemen literally tens of thousands of dollars from the fall in prices her comments triggered.

The phrase “pink slime” wouldn’t even be coined for another 6 years. Back then if it wasn’t Where’s the Beef!, it was Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.

Add it all up and in twenty years we have indeed, lost another generation of American’s who either originated directly or were second generation from a farm. Or, who don’t understand what’s wrong with the statement I recently saw posted on the web proclaiming, “You shouldn’t hunt or kill animals for food when you can buy meat in a store instead.” As simple as it seems – and perhaps frustrating – we are the ones that may need to explain to those folks the reason we have quality beef available at the store most anytime we want it is because cattlemen have spent over two years planning and working towards providing to the consumer that particular piece of meat!

Perhaps for me one of the most telling tales of how things have changed over the years remains this story from Francis Fluharty, Coordinator of the Ohio Beef Industry Center, that I shared a couple years ago.

Fluharty and his wife Janis went to dinner at a ‘steak’ restaurant. As he describes it, perhaps “not a great steak restaurant, just a restaurant we hadn’t been to for years . . .” Janis ordered a filet mignon. When her meal came, it wasn’t a filet, but a really small Delmonico. As Francis says, a Delmonico is a great steak, but valued at least $10 less!

If you know Francis Fluharty, you likely know what happened next . . . he asked to see the manager. When she came and was questioned, she said “. . . that’s a filet, we don’t serve Delmonico steaks here . . .”

If you’ve ever enjoyed one of Fluharty’s Ohio Beef Feedlot Schools, then the response to that from my dear friend Dr. Fluharty won’t surprise you either: “That’s not a psoas major, that’s a longissimus dorsi with a spinalis dorsi on the top. Also, that’s about 8 to 9 square inches, and I don’t know how big the steers are that your steaks come from, but a 1300 pound steer would have, at best a 4 square inch filet.”

Needless to say, the restaurant manager offered no further response.

And, the point of sharing this story, you ask? It’s simple. If there was ever a time to step up our public relations ‘game’ it’s now! When a ‘steak house’ doesn’t understand what they are serving – or perhaps decided they couldn’t afford to correctly identify what they were serving assuming their patrons wouldn’t know the difference – imagine how confusing it must be for consumers. Consider that few understand even the most basic aspects of beef cattle production. Imagine how gullible they are when offered misinformation about anything from meat cuts to production practices. Or, as suggested on that now famous, fast food paper drink cup, whether a cow is concerned if it ever sees a double rainbow, or is outside “talking about the weather and gossiping about cud and such.”

Regardless our place in the beef cattle industry, keeping up with trends in beef cattle and forage production will probably be the easy part as we look to the future. Our greatest challenge for the next two decades will likely remain convincing ensuing generations we’d not raise a product for them that we wouldn’t eat ourselves, or feed our children and grandchildren. We must continue to tell our story, yet accept the fact they may never really understand the joy a cattleman can realize from watching as a calf he or she just delivered breach, while perhaps wallowed knee deep in mud, and in the midst of one of Ohio’s ‘mini’ blizzards, takes its first breath. And fortunately, for cattlemen, that will remain a constant!