For nearly 50 years, the emphasis of beef producers and researchers centered on getting cattle to use more grain. That's changing in today's volatile environment of high corn and feed costs to finding ways to produce high quality beef using the least amount of grain.
"There are many unknowns about how to do that, but one thing is certain—it will involve a bigger role for the stocker sector," according Darrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing economist.
Peel spoke at the annual Husker Beef Nutrition Conference this fall in Mead to a crowd of feedlot operators, researchers and consultants.
"High corn prices have had a negative impact on all the meat sectors, but the beef industry has the ability to cope better than those who raise pork or poultry," he says. "But ruminant flexibility is an advantage only if the industry changes to capitalize on those capabilities."
Peel discussed the changing structure of the beef industry stemming from not just high feed costs, but a cattle inventory that's as low as it's been in decades.
Those lows numbers are exacerbated by the drought in the southern High Plains that has forced cattlemen to liquidate herds. A stunning number of cattle—1 million head—has either gone to slaughter or moved north, many to Nebraska, according to Peel.
Should the drought persist in this region, K.S. Eng of San Antonio, said, "It will change the face of the entire beef industry because 23% of the beef cows reside in Texas and Oklahoma." Eng, another speaker at the Husker Beef Nutrition Conference, is a Nebraska native and a consultant.
Peel said the cattle markets are providing twin signals to producers today. One is to increase the cowherd. But under the current conditions, that could take 3 to 6 years, he added.
The other signal is to place more emphasis on forage use and ethanol byproducts rather than on corn, he said. That in turn will lead to better forage management, more retained ownership opportunities and possibly even require a change in beef genetics.