It’s a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 is a tough year to be a cattleman or cattlewoman. Anyone who has made a career in the beef industry over the last 20-plus years would probably reassure young cattle producers of the ingenuity and progress that can be made during difficult circumstances and that’s precisely what Bill Rishel of Rishel Angus shared during the Beef Improvement Federation Young Producers Symposium.
“I firmly believe that we will have a beef industry in 20 years but I believe we are going to have to be willing to change and adjust,” Rishel said. “I think that the future is in our hands, particularly the generation of young producers in our industry.”
Rishel was quick to clarify that while the Beef Improvement Federation often focuses on purebred genetics, he and other seedstock producers recognize commercial cattlemen as part of the driving force behind the success of the beef industry as a whole.
“The purebred beef industry has no reason to exist without a viable beef industry, even though we have done some things over the years that might bring into question whether we had strayed a bit from that principle on occasion,” Rishel said.
Over the last 50 years, the beef industry has experienced a series of paradigm shifts that changed the landscape of individual operations, as well as the industry as a whole, Rishel said. In order to look to the future, young producers can uncover a lot of experience and opportunities among the changes of the past.
Without measurements and monitoring, improvements are nearly impossible to achieve. For Rishel, performance records filled a vital role in beef industry history by allowing producers more control over the details and daily decisions that set a profitable operation from one in the red. One important performance shift for Rishel came with the introduction of the very first Expected Progency Difference indicators in the Angus breed in 1988.
“We had some things like estimated breeding values prior to that, but EPDs represented one of the more advanced genetic tools in our industry,” Rishel said. “They gave us the ability to remove environmental differences and compare individuals based on their true genetic variance.”
Advanced genomics, as well as herd recording and the development of EPDs has had a profound effect on the success of the beef industry compared to other meat industries, and Rishel believes those impacts will remain a part of the industry’s future.
“I believe that the speed of development and adaptation of genomics in our industry as a tool for genetic improvement was unprecedented in my lifetime, in this business,” Rishel said. “I also believe that we have just begun to scratch the surface of the many ways that we will use genomic information to improve beef cattle production.”
Artificial Insemination, Estrus Synchronization & Embryo Transfer
Genetic improvements in beef cattle and the greater beef industry cannot be discussed without highlighting the advancements in targeted reproduction strategies like artificial insemination.
For Rishel, the widespread acceptance and implementation of AI was a major paradigm shift in the industry, followed closely by estrus synchronization and embryo transfer.
“Artificial insemination in cattle has been around for many years, but the great economic impact of AI for genetic improvement began in the dairy herds, roughly in the 1930s,” Rishel said. “Until the early 1970s, artificial insemination in some beef breed associations was restricted to just the owners who owned an interest in the bull.
“As you can imagine, these restrictions slowed down genetic progress in the purebred industry and they did the same in the commercial industry as well.”
During his time in the beef industry, Rishel has witnessed greater opportunities for genetic improvement and an impact on the long-term sustainability of many breeds and sectors of the cattle industry, many of which he attributes to these changes in reproductive technology.
Box Beef Fabrication
One of the most monumental paradigm shifts in the beef industry came in the 1980s with the invention of the Cryovac process for packaging in box beef fabrication facilities.
“The idea of not shipping hanging sides which would then be fabricated behind the meat counters in supermarkets and stores, and instead shipping boxes that stacking refrigerated trucks more efficiently, with more saleable pounds of product had a monumental impact on the cost of delivery of product to purveyors, distributors, retailers and food service.”
Rishel said he felt the implementation of boxed beef advanced the value of safety of beef products and helped expand beef with a larger audience. The expansion of beef consumers and beef retailers was also facilitated by programs like the Beef Checkoff, which Rishel also views as an important advocate for the industry as a whole.
“I can't help but think — and sometimes it's quite disturbing to think — about where we might be today in this industry if these forward-looking programs taking the lead to tell the story of beef and promote beef demand had not been initiated,” Rishel said.
Aside from the market challenges beef producers face, Rishel said generational turnover remains as a big handicap for the beef business, especially for young producers. However, he also said young producers are a driving part of a new narrative that will define the coming paradigm shifts in the future of the beef industry.
“Twenty years from today we may look back and proclaim the greatest paradigm shift was our ability to accept change and move from an industry that has been primarily a production-oriented business to one that is focused on not only providing a great product to consumers but connects with consumers in a way that they also appreciate and understand what we do is regenerative and sustainable,” Rishel said. “I think going forward we all need to expand our participation in how we make our industry more sustainable so we can maintain its viability and provide a solid financial foundation by which our enterprises can be successfully transition to the next generation.”