Calculating the costs of beef production
Alternative meat: Would you eat it?
The 51st annual Beef Cattlemen’s Conference, held Feb. 4 at the Monett National Guard Armory, posed some tough questions for producers attending the program.
One of the first topics, on calculating the cost of the operational costs for varying sizes of beef farms with a panel of successful producers, broke the costs of production down to a per cow basis.
Nathan Isakson, of Ash Grove, said he runs 2.5 head of cow-calf pair per acre on his farm, the majority of which is Show-Me Select, on a rotational basis.
“We stockpile fescue for strip grazing from mid-November through the first week of February,” Isakson said. “We do feed hay in the event of snow or ice, because of trampling. We also feed hay through the month of September to allow the farm to rest for 30 days.”
In lieu of building a barn, Isakson stores his tarped hay on a three-inch bed of gravel.
“Don’t pay for a barn you never build,” he said.
By using a scheduled plan of operation, grazing fertilized regrowth October through mid-November; feeding hay from February through April, Isakson said he has a higher percent of cows re-breeding faster, generating uniformity of calves at market time.
“If we were able to graze through December without stockpiled forage, we would spend an additional $5,463 to provide the nutritional requirements of the herd, assuming a 750-pound [round] bale is valued at $40,” he said. “However, there is a difference in quality between lush fescue and baled hay.”
Isakson also advocates for soil testing, and fertilizes his fields based upon those test results.
“I’m a firm believer in ‘don’t guess, soil test,’” he said.
In accounting for the cost of feed, veterinary supplies, chemicals, veterinary labor, farm services, pasture rent, marketing fees and other expenses, Isakson said it costs him $589 per year per cow.
Weaver Forest, of rural Verona, said he follows a rotational grazing system on his 750-acre farm, and has since he started in the cattle business in 1966.
“I’ve used a number of different protocols,” he said. “Sometimes, you win. Sometimes, you lose. That’s the cattle business.”
Forest said he had purchased most of his land since 1980.
“But, I use pasture rent as an opportunity cost,” he said.
Forest said he fertilizes his fields with chicken litter, but cautions young farmers.
“Keep cattle off of mature fescue,” he said.
Forest uses another practice that is not typically mentioned.
“I have the vet pelvic measure every cow on the place,” he said. “Believe me, that’s the cheapest $5 you’ll ever spend.”
At the end of the season, when Forest calculates his operating costs, he estimates he invests $900 in each calf before it goes to market.
“There are several things you’ll need to succeed in this business,” he said. “A supportive wife with a job off-farm, a good CPA, a good banker, and a good salesman. Mentor with other successful producers and learn what works for them.”
The third panel member, Cherry Warren, of Exeter, said he operates his rotational grazing operation on 2,000 acres, 1,500 of which he owns and the remainder of which is leased.
“I rotate the cows every two to three weeks,” he said. “It helps prevent fescue foot.
“We calve both in the spring and in the fall. We background all calves. I keep about 100 heifers a year for replacements.”
Warren attributed his success in his Angus cattle operation to his off-farm job of 18 years in the banking industry.
“That’s where I learned about farming,” he said. “I talked with successful operators and learned from them.”
Warren uses both chicken and turkey litter to fertilize his acreages.
“Last summer, I couldn’t put enough cattle on to eat the crab grass,” he said. “I do plant wheat as a cover crop, but fescue is still the main base.”
In addition to making sure his cattle has plenty of lush fescue on which to graze, Warren also uses DNA testing results before buying a bull.
“Those tests are more accurate,” he said.
Upon calculating his annual costs of insurance, feed, fertilizer, vet costs, chemicals, wages, taxes fuel, utilities and supplies, Warren broke down his operational costs, based on a 90 percent calf crop, to $725 per calf.
Summing it up, Warren told younger producers why he doesn’t mind aiding a laboring cow in the middle of a cold winter night.
“We start calving in the fall and continue through January,” he said. “I don’t mind it at all if I need to be out at midnight with a cow about to calve. I have a passion for cattle. That’s why I do this.”
The next topic, the alternative protein market, was addressed by Dr. Byron Wiegand, a professor of animal science at University of Missouri in Columbia.
Wiegand noted there are a number of vegetable sources in today’s marketplace by which people can meet their protein needs. However, there are some that are utilizing stem cells from inside a cow’s mouth, animal blood product, which is collected from a slaughterhouse, and “grown” in a lab.
“They take satellite cells from a living animal and the product is proliferated in strips, to mimic skeletal muscle,” he said. “It’s grown on a scaffold, instead of a skeletal structure, fed a nutrient-rich medium and then stretched for exercise, to achieve the texture of a meat product.”
The product takes 21 days to mature in a bio-reactor, and there are guestimates that predict it will hit retail shelves by 2021.
The upside for local producers so far?
“It costs $18,000 a pound to reproduce beef,” he said. “But [beef producers] will have competition when the technology catches up. What we don’t know is if the marketing can catch up.”
For those who believe that cultured meats will “save the planet,” Wiegand posed a reality check.
“Cultured products are highly processed, which goes against the whole concept of clean labels and simple labels,” he said. “For example, the Impossible Burger, sold by Burger King, contains 19 ingredients to make it taste like meat. Meat only has one. And the Impossible Burger is $1 more expensive than the Whopper.”
Weigand said many food processors, including Tyson Foods, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, have invested in the alternative meat industry.
“Why?” he asked. “Because they want diversified portfolios; first-hand knowledge of the technology; secondary pick-up of brand loyalty; and millions in short-term revenue.”
During his travels, Weigand ran into at least one individual who expressed his irritation with those trying to replicate a meat-flavored product to attract the vegetarian and vegan markets.
“The man said he was aggravated that companies were doing this,” he said. “The guy told me he had willingly given up [meat], and did not see any reason behind companies trying to mimic a plant-based product targeted toward those who had made that choice.”
Finally, Weigand questioned what agency or entity was going to be required to oversee the food safety aspect of cultured meat products.
“Who is going to be responsible for ensuring the consumer is protected?” he asked. “That has not yet been determined.”
Those issues, along with legislation that has not caught up with the technology, truth-in-labeling and other issues are currently working with local producers.
“Right now, the motivation for companies is to make money from this process,” Weigand said. “That will take awhile.”
Three doctors of veterinary medicine, Dr. Darren Loula, Dr. Ted Dahlstrom and Dr. Voyd Brown, rounded out the evening’s presentation with a discussion on herd health.
Loula, of Clever, reported an increase in pink eye infection in cattle, citing flies, lack of shade and other contributors to the disease.
“We now use a combination vaccinations, as well as talk to producers about other ways to reduce the potential for cattle to develop pink eye,” he said.
Dahlstrom, Monett, spoke of the many benefits of using multi-strain vaccinations for herd health.
“You have to give a booster after the initial0 pink eye vaccination,” he said. “It boosts protection from 65 to 95 percent. There is also a pink eye impact that contains the initial dose as well as the booster. It is highly successful, but a little inconvenient. You still have to use fly control. But we have the tools to enhance pink eye protection.”
Loula also recommended producers take an hour to sit down with their veterinarian and develop a herd health plan.
“Customers should tell their vet what they have been battling for the past couple of years,” he said. “We take that information and make a plan that works for you.”
There has also been an increase in hairy heel warts in beef cattle.
“Traditionally, this is more common to dairy herds,” Loula said. “However, our practice has a seen more cases in beef herds in the last few years.”
The bacteria results in painful ulcerations and erosion of the heel of the foot, along with significant lameness.
“Topical treatment is most effective, but keeping a clean environment and promoting a strong immune function in your herd is the best practice,” he added.
Other suggestions included moving bale rings when the ground around them becomes muddy from weather and feces. The bacteria, which is highly contagious, thrives in damp dirty conditions, so keeping fields clean and minimizing cow contact with slurry reduces the risk of infection.
Dahlstrom said mycoplasma is not getting enough attention for current preventive practice strategies.
“The bacteria is constantly mutating and changing,” he said. “It is an untreatable disease. Commonly used antibiotics do not work. They are a waste of time.”
Mycoplasma has been classed as a highly contagious disease. The bacteria can cause a number of ailments to cattle, including mastitis in dairy cows, arthritis in cows and calves, pneumonia in calves, and various other diseases likely including late-term abortion.
“The best thing you can do is take a bunch of calves to the back 40 and go back a couple of weeks later and pick up the live ones,” he said. “If your calves are sick, it’s already too late. There is no way to get them healthy.”
Concerning open cows that did not become pregnant through natural methods or artificial insemination, Brown indicated economically, they are best culled from the herd.
“She has to earn her spot on the farm,” he said. “If she has been a slow breeder the first time, she’ll be a slow breeder afterward.”
“When I am culling, if a cow has not produced that year, I get rid of her,” Dahlstrom agreed. “My wife will say, ‘she’s been a good cow, ’ and ‘has been’ is the key phrase. When you, the producer, are paying us to pregnancy check your cows, and one comes up open, they need a bus ticket. That is the way to stay ahead in the game.”
Dahlstrom also noted that his practice also does vaccine compounding, using the right quantities of medications after cell culturing in his lab in Monett.
“With the vaccinations we have made, we have identified 21 different strains of mycoplasma organisms, cultured from local farms,” he said. “The only way to know if your cattle have the same strain as your neighbor’s is to have them swabbed. These bugs mutate. They find a way to adapt to the environment and survive.”
“We have the tools you need,” Brown said. “You just have to implement and utilize those tools at the proper time in production.”