Nebraska is called the Beef State for good reason. It's the largest red meat exporter in the U.S., is home to more cattle on feed than any other state, and is also the origin of the flat iron steak — a cut of beef that has helped add value for beef producers.
The Beef State image is something that resonates with consumers, and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture hopes to help producers capitalize on this through the Certified Beef from Nebraska program, launched last fall.
The idea for a third-party verification program came early on during Greg Ibach's role as NDA director, he says. "I was in Europe, and while I was there, I took time to visit grocery stores to get a feeling for what the consumer's attitude toward agriculture was," Ibach says. "I remember a store in London with photos of the actual farmer who raised the product on the shelf."
The next question was: How does Nebraska beef resonate with consumers?
A 2011 survey of 1,000 patrons of high-end restaurants in Connecticut and Arizona conducted by NDA and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Animal Science Department posed the question: Where does the best beef come from? It was an open-ended question, but 83% said it comes from the Midwest. When asked —What states in the Midwest provide the best beef? — the answer was unequivocally: Nebraska.
"Thirty-three percent said the best beef comes from Nebraska," Doug Carr, senior account executive at Firespring, told the audience at this year's Governor's Ag Conference, where third-party verification programs were a big topic of discussion. "That is a ripe market for picking. We should really promote that."
Survey respondents also said they would pay $4.74 more for a steak if it comes from Nebraska.
Adding value through traceability
Through the Certified Beef from Nebraska program, Ibach hopes to help producers capitalize on this demand through a premium for calves born and raised in Nebraska. "We're hoping that by creating demand for born-in-Nebraska calves, we're adding value all the way down to the cow-calf segment," Ibach says. "It's also a good fit for us, because we're one of the few states that have the entire beef chain."
In order to add value, however, Ibach notes it takes traceability – and this is where a Process Verified Program, or PVP, comes in.
So, similar to the non-hormone treated cattle (NHTC) or antibiotic-free (NE3) programs, which a number of Nebraska producers are already working with, the Certified Beef from Nebraska program involves a third-party audit. Beef Quality Assurance certification is also required, although many cattle feeders and cow-calf producers in Nebraska are already BQA-certified.
Third-party audits are conducted by several companies in Nebraska, including Samson LLC, which will conduct audits for the Certified Beef from Nebraska program. Audits, which typically take 30 to 60 minutes, will verify that the calves in the program are born on the ranch being audited with written birth documentation. The auditor will then provide a program tag to identify calves before they leave the ranch.
"It takes time to develop both supply and demand," says Scott Mueller, co-owner of Samson LLC. "Nebraska is fortunate we have a wealth of high-quality genetics that have been produced on ranches throughout the state, and the feedyards that can take those cattle, maximize performance and produce world-renowned beef we can call Nebraska beef. We have the resources, the feed, water and people to make a quality, successful product."
Building international, domestic demand
Although the program is just getting started, Ibach notes once processors and packers participate in the program, there will be opportunities to help them find both domestic and international markets. Buyers can identify processing plants that have Certified Beef from Nebraska through USDA plant numbers.
The next step is identifying foreign markets that can serve as a nucleus for larger imports of Nebraska beef, as well as identifying retail groups and small chains in the U.S. with a focus on Nebraska products.
Part of NDA's marketing efforts includes working with Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Beef Council to share the Nebraska beef story with consumers through a series of videos featuring wide-open rangeland and pasture in Nebraska, as well as producers themselves.
And with the resources available in Nebraska, there may be additional opportunities for ag products from the state, including certified no-till, pork products or any number of Nebraska brands.
"As the world is getting more affluent — the ability for people to purchase food meeting certain criteria, even if it adds additional expenses — as we look down the road, I think agricultural producers are going to have opportunities to pick their production emphasis," Ibach says. "For some, that may be based on quantity and low-cost production for the bulk marketplace. For others, it may be adding value to get more return per bushel than commodity corn or soybeans. Programs like this might be a way to do that."