When we think of the Western cattle industry, we typically think of rugged individuals cowboys riding alone and cattle ranchers relying on their own strength and resourcefulness to earn a living from the land. That independence resonates within all of us; it's the West's version of the American dream.
Sadly, it's a dream that has been slowly disappearing for the last quarter of a century as independent ranchers get squeezed out by shrinking profits and rising costs. Ironically, in a recent survey, Colorado State University animal sciences Professor Jack Whittier has revealed that the best way for cattle ranchers to retain economic independence may be by simply learning to work more cooperatively with others.
It used to be that independent ranchers sold their calves to middlemen, who owned them for a short time before selling them to feedlots. The feedlots sold the animals to meat packers and so on down the line until retailers sold the final cuts of meat to consumers. The downside to this arrangement is that a rancher who sells his calves at weaning time rarely receives feedback about the quality of the final meat products from the consumer's perspective. He also is less likely to receive greater rewards for producing better beef.
Whittier and his colleagues, Professor Dana Hoag in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and D.E. Mount, graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal Sciences, surveyed 450 Colorado cow-calf producers about production systems and practices. The survey showed that more producers today maintain at least partial ownership of calves after they leave the ranch.
"We're seeing more ranchers contracting with someone to put cattle in a feedlot to develop them, and we're finding more retained and joint ownership ventures," Whittier says.
Here's how it works: A consortium of ranchers and feedlot operators put together management guidelines and specifications for breed composition and vaccination programs. The consortium then rewards those ranchers who adhere to the requirements through outright purchase or profit sharing.
"This is a fairly significant trend because it encourages more responsibility," Whittier says. "If a rancher has good cattle, and they perform well in the feedlot, the rancher benefits. He also has the opportunity to get feedback on the quality of his operation."
It's no secret that American consumers are becoming more concerned about the quality and safety of their food. "Consumers are willing to pay a premium for knowing that their meat comes from cattle that were properly vaccinated," explains Whittier. "And retailers are more willing to pass the rewards back to the producers. Ranchers could get up to $25 more per head if they're involved in this kind of marketing plan."
The ranchers participating in the survey indicated they would like to be better informed about marketing opportunities such as retained ownership ventures. In response, Whittier plans to put together a series of informational materials for Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agents to use in county newsletters, community programs, and meetings with producers.
Whittier believes Colorado State is in a good position to lead this campaign. "The state's cattle industry sees the University as an important educational entity," he says. "For example, we've put forth tremendous effort over the past four or five years to educate beef producers about the best injection methods, such as injecting in the neck rather than in areas that produce more premium cuts."
In 1993, 14 percent of injections were given in the neck. Whittier's 1999 survey found that 67 percent of injections are now given in the neck proof positive that cattle producers are open to learning more about how to increase the value of their product. They're also learning that to win in the cattle industry, it no longer pays to go it alone.