Lessons Learned by a Cattleman in 2020

Stan Smith, OSU Extension PA, Fairfield County (originally published in the Ohio Farmer on-line)

Having grown up in the 50’s and 60’s, the experience of social distancing and self-quarantine in recent months hasn’t really been too much of a struggle for me. Afterall, if you grew up on a farm in rural Ohio in those days, the only time you saw anyone but your closest neighbor was at the feed mill, church, or baseball practice. Speaking of baseball, another lesson from those days that’s served me well is when in a close game, you don’t want to be sitting on a fastball if the pitcher you’re facing can throw a changeup for a strike. Suffice to say, Mother Nature continues to prove she can throw any pitch she wants, at any time, and throw it for a strike.

To suggest we’ve needed to remain flexible this year would be an understatement. However, much like experiences from past years serve us well today, at some point we’ll draw on the challenges of 2020 to our benefit. Until then, let’s reflect on our recent past.

Too wet + Too dry is not just right

After experiencing three consecutive Ohio winter and springs of near record precipitation, followed by dry summers, is it time to assemble a feed management plan that buffers the cow herd against stresses resulting from foul weather? Feeding pads, managed rotational bale grazing, or stockpiled forage all go a long way towards keeping cows out of the mud. While managed grazing requires less investment, a feeding pad allows forages to be processed and bunk fed for more efficiency, and when needed, blended with additional protein or energy from by-product feed sources.

We can’t starve a profit into a cow, and feed quality, feed waste, and cow condition must be monitored utilizing a variety of tactics.

Cover crops aren’t just cover crops

The value of utilizing cover crops for feed or bedding is well documented in Ohio. Cover crops fed to beef cattle remain a valuable asset particularly in these times of limited forage and bedding supplies.

Freezer beef is back!

Last year if you wanted to schedule a beef for custom kill, it was common to get an appointment within a month or two. Today, in many cases butcher shops are booking out nearly a year. The message seems clear.

Despite some spikes in price at the retail counter resulting from virus related supply chain issues, consumers want meat, and in particular, they want high quality beef. They trust in beef’s nutritional value and prefer to buy it from a farmer when they can.

How long this seemingly rediscovered phenomena will continue remains to be seen. But, if you enjoy marketing direct to the consumer, don’t miss an opportunity . . . consumers trust you, and want your product! Even during times of tight cash, quality beef purchased from a trusted cattleman sells!

Pricing isn’t always fair, and maybe contracted cattle aren’t so bad

The beef supply chain issues that allowed freezer beef to become such a hot commodity is also what caused a slowdown in fed cattle movement this spring resulting in pressure on prices. Keeping a feedlot current in this environment is particularly difficult for cattle feeders that can’t contract pot loads of fed cattle. Often in the past we’ve suggested a solution to this dilemma being the ability to team up with neighbors and collectively ‘work big.’

Twice in the past year we’ve seen the benefits of having contracted cattle. First time was a year ago when a packing house fire temporarily reduced U.S. harvest capacity. This spring it resulted from worker health issues that necessitated closing packing facilities for periods of time. It’s hard to chastise cattlemen that protect their margins by contracting or hedging at profitable prices. Find a way to do the same regardless of size and scale of operation.

Imports are not the enemy

At a time when retail beef prices were escalating and cattle were held on the farm due to well documented supply chain issues, in some sectors the importation of beef came under fire. Few of these imports are competition for the high-quality beef raised in the U.S.

Imports are predominately lesser valued lean trim that’s blended with domestic beef fat and utilized for hamburger offered in most fast food chains. Without the imported lean trim to blend it with, fat from domestic slaughter has little value and is most likely rendered.

Lessons of livestock bio-security and human disease testing resonate

Since spring, many have expressed frustration that Ohio’s disease tracking system cannot efficiently track outbreaks of COVID-19. How many times have we heard if we don’t implement a standardized tag-based tracking system for our livestock, in the event of a disease outbreak it will be nearly impossible to track that outbreak to its source?

We’ve visited with our youth owning livestock projects for at least the past decade about the importance of biosecurity. Those lessons included hand washing and using sanitizer to prevent the spread of livestock disease. Today we’re each being asked to utilize those same bio-security techniques we’ve taught youth for years. Is it also time we begin to take the need for a standardized livestock tracking system seriously?

Computers aren’t such a bad thing, and ZOOM works

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that for some, ZOOM has become our newset four-letter word. While most of us have grown weary of ZOOM’s, there’s no denying it has kept us in contact, and provided lots of educational opportunities that would have otherwise been impossible.

Adapt and change

Colleague Dr. Les Anderson, University of Kentucky Extension Beef Specialist, recently said it best in his monthly newsletter . . . “Adapt and change. It’s the story of life and it’s how we evolve.”

To do that we must value experience, stay flexible, and be prepared for the next change-up Mother Nature throws!