Where’s the Beef? This question became commonplace after it was asked repeatedly by Clara Peller in a Wendy’s fast food advertising campaign in the mid 1980’s.
If you have been in or around Nebraska agriculture, you likely know the impact the beef industry has in our state. According to the latest published information from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, USDA, and National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), here are answers to Clara’s question.
Nebraska ranks first nationally in these categories:
— Beef and beef product export values (2017 – $1.26 billion);
— Commercial red meat production (2018 – 8.1 billion pounds);
— Commercial cattle slaughter (2018 – 7.45 million head);
— All cattle on feed (Jan. 1, 2019 – 2.75 million head).
— Nebraska also ranks highly nationally in several more categories:
— Second, all cattle and calves (Jan. 1, 2019 – 6.8 million head);
— Fourth, total beef cows, (Jan. 1, 2019 – 1.94 million head).
The 2020 statistics that are just now coming out reaffirm Nebraska’s ranking as “The Beef State”.
So, what is the University of Nebraska doing in the beef sector? The scope of this column will not allow a full listing of all the things going on at your university on this topic. However, the short answer is – lots!
In early January I attended the university Beef Team meeting, which has been going for many years. All faculty in the University of Nebraska system with assignments or interest in beef cattle, rangelands and meat science gather for two days for update and discussion at the beginning of each year. This year there were 52 people in attendance.
This group meets twice each year. The January meeting is for researchers, instructors and extension professionals, including county-based extension educators. The second meeting generally takes place in May and includes graduate students who are working in beef-related topics toward advanced degrees. At the May meeting, the graduate students report the results of their research projects.
One prime example of what the university is doing is demonstrated by a key publication. Dr. Karla Wilke, Beef Specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, is the editor of the annual Nebraska Beef Cattle Report. The 2020 printed version of this report is available at the Center, and each county extension office across Nebraska. This report, plus a wide range of additional information, is also accessible on what has been termed, “the premiere beef website in the world” at https://beef.unl.edu.
One reason for my focus on Nebraska’s beef industry, and UNL’s impact on it, is to provide insight to a list of concerns raised at the Beef Team meeting this year. After two days of update and discussion, the following question was put to these 52 university professionals who work in the beef cattle discipline:
“What topics need to be on our radar for the future, and how are we positioned to address these topics now, and in the coming months and years?”
Following is the list that was assembled. These are not ranked in any order, but raised a level of concern to me as a reflection of challenges facing the beef industry, and in fact all of agriculture, in today’s society. There’s not enough space to expound on them; they are listed here as they were written on the flipchart at the front of the room. I can assure you that UNL is keenly aware of these topics and working, along with other components of the beef industry, to address them in a science-based manner.
— Use of antibiotics for treating sick animals will become “prescription only” and will not be available at the local feed store in the future.
— Production practices may be increasingly mandated with increasing societal pressures on the beef industry.
— Mandatory animal identification systems.
— Increases in beef product demand to feed a growing population and because of the superb nutritional value of beef.
— Somewhat specific to Nebraska is the topic of red cedar encroachment into native rangelands.
Certainly, this list includes many direct influences of society on the beef industry as a result of changes in our society over the past decades. These changes are real and must be addressed for the beef industry, and agriculture in general, to continue to provide and survive in the coming decades.
I’ll conclude with a story from my early days as a beef extension specialist. While at the University of Missouri, soon after finishing my Ph.D. degree at the University of Nebraska in 1985, I was on a four-state meeting circuit with other beef extension specialists from Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
During the round of meetings, a well-known colleague from Kansas State University, Dr. Larry Corah, showed a slide that said, “A Country That Has Lots of Food, Has Lots of Problems. However, a Country That Has Little Food Only Has One Problem.”
The comment on that slide has stuck in my mind for nearly 40 years now. Perhaps the list of topics listed above and outlined by the UNL Beef Team reflects having “lots of food – therefore lots of problems”. Perhaps many of these so-called problems are due to misunderstanding or misrepresentation by a society with full stomachs.