Adapt and Change

– Dr. Les Anderson, Extension Beef Specialist, University of Kentucky

Dr. Les Anderson, “Adapt and change. It’s the story of life and it’s how we evolve.”

Well, the last few months sure have been interesting!

COVID. Social distancing. Life this spring reminded me of the summers of my youth. I grew up on a cattle and grain farm in northeast Missouri and social distancing was our way of life. My grandparents lived about a mile down the road but everyone else was quite a bit further. We didn’t go out to eat, didn’t go to the movies, we went to the store maybe every couple of weeks, and we stayed home and worked. We raised our own beef, bought pigs and chickens from our neighbors, had a huge garden, and canned. The biggest difference between then and our situation this spring was we had a “party line” so kids didn’t use phones hardly at all and our social event was every Sunday. We went to church and then my entire extended family (about 60-70 people) went to our local park for a carry-in dinner and to catch up. It was a great way to grow up.

I have often thought of how much I miss those days but, after this spring I’m not so sure! I enjoy my social interactions; I missed my kids, mom, friends, working on farms, going to meetings. As the restrictions are lifted, our methods of interactions are changing; masks, six feet separation, no big crowds, no handshakes, no hugs, etc. Whether we want to or not, some of these changes will be around for a while and we will adapt, and the world will change.

The COVID pandemic created quite an issue in the beef industry. This spring, we should have seen feeder cattle prices rise and the return of some profitability to cow-calf operations. Our industry was at the bottom of the cattle cycle and feeder cattle prices should have begun their cyclical climb. But, brother COVID created supply chain issues and the most unusual situation we have observed in the beef industry. Feeder cattle prices remained low despite a 13% increase in retail meats. This discrepancy could be explained because the packers had to shut down, the feedlots couldn’t market their cattle, and the backlog of fat cattle created reduced demand for feeders and a reduced supply of beef because they could not get processed so a “meat shortage” resulted. Beef rushed off the shelves and beef prices at the retailer increased. This incredibly unusual situation created a platform for the industry to reexamine the supply chain. Four major packers control the harvest and distribution of beef putting the rest of the industry in a perilous situation. Congress is investigating so perhaps its possible the industry will see real change.

I have seen already some change in beef production and marketing in Kentucky. Responding to an increased demand from the market, customers have been requesting locally produced beef and more producers are selling freezer beef than ever. But, again, we are having issues with supply chain because we just don’t have enough small, local meat processors to handle the sharp increases in demand. I can’t help but think how much stronger our industry would be if we had more marketing options that included locally sourced, locally produced, locally processed food including beef. Our stockyards and feedlots do a super job of price discovery, but the entire industry is subject to a few large beef processors and retailers. Perhaps a little diversification would give us more options and get us out from under the thumb of the large meat processors. Perhaps more marketing options could help producers generate more income.

Adapt and change. It’s the story of life and it’s how we evolve.