Where's the Beef?
by Doreen Hannes
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation along with the House Ag Committee Chair Colin Petersen (D-MN) seem to think that we must "preserve our export markets" by trading our real liberty for other nation's false sense of security through mass registration of our livestock and property under the National Animal Identification System or NAIS. It's common for beef magazines to lament about the new "voluntary" approach to the NAIS as being harmful to our economy.
Finding this an interesting argument, I decided to research the actual numbers to find out the truth of the importance and value of our beef export market.
Oddly enough, what I found out first was that the USDA does not publish all pertinent information in a single document that jibes with other documents. They also don't publish the information necessary to ascertain solid facts about import/export in an apple to apple comparison, but consistently compare apples to oranges. For instance, one report on exports will address the amount of beef imported in millions of tons with no indication of whether this is live weight, carcass weight, or dressed weight, and then the amount of exported beef will be given in dollar amounts. After digging extensively through USDA documents this shouldn't come as any kind of a surprise, but it certainly is an aggravation. In order to be terrifically generous to the USDA , I decided to simply address all weights as dressed beef based on an average dress out of 770 pounds per carcass which seemed to be a fairly agreed upon average between industry magazines and university studies as well as government reports. So let's count the cattle.
In 2005, the consumption of beef in the United States was 27.8 billion pounds. This breaks down to 36,103,896.1 or 36.1 million head. The total poundage of imported meat from all sources was given in one report as 6.6 million tons, another report as 6.2 million tons and yet another as 4.8 million tons. Which was it? Who knows? The USDA obviously doesn't… which raises some terrifically interesting questions that may be addressed in other articles, but for our purposes we'll just use the average so we can't be accused of being unfair.
So imported beef is roughly 5.8 million tons (give or take a few million head depending on the stats) or11.6 billion pounds for 2005. That breaks down to over 15 million head of cattle.
Surprisingly, the revered export market had the same stats in many places. That is 272,000 tons of beef translating into 706,493 head.
Doing the math then, we find that for less than 2 percent of our total consumption we are told we must "get with the rest of the world" and implement an onerous program that will drive small farmers out of business and consolidate the production of food to corporate growers.
Even more incredibly, we are only producing 56% of the beef we consume including the paltry amount we export. So we have a 44% shortfall in production, which means we should be raising another 15.7 million head before we even think about exporting the first cow!
Other statistics indicate that 66% of our cattle herds have less than fifty cattle. Some say 80%, but never mind that, we'll stick with the most accepted percentage. For a herd of 50 cows it would cost $34.52 per cow to get into the NAIS system, or $1726. That is assuming that a laptop can be purchased for $123, which would be a wonder. I don't think I'd want that laptop myself. When you take into account that the average age of the cattle grower is nearing 60 years of age (55.3 nationwide) you have to wonder if people will want to jump through all these hoops just to keep making a few dollars a year. Now, let's have a little more fun with numbers and look to the 2002 Ag Census for some info.
In the 2002 Census, it shows that we have over 1,018,359 farms that produce cattle. Yet the USDA adjusted their estimate of the number of premises down from 2.1 million to 1.4 million last fall. Intriguing, isn’t it? Busting out the calculator again, if you add the total number of farms with less than 50 head of cattle you come up with 671,425 farms. Presuming those with less than fifty head won't find the idea of coughing up $1700 in order to keep their cows a financially brilliant move, many would probably quit. It's way too much of a headache with all the reporting and such. If those farmers bail, taking their thirty percent of the beef production with them, it means we would need to import an additional 10.8 million head. Hmm. If they all stayed in business, that 10.8 million head would translate into $372.8 million for the identification and technology companies. Finally, we see that someone will benefit from this system!
If USDA statistics are trustworthy, and we actually have 1.4 million premises that should be registered under the NAIS, then every sale barn, vet clinic, livestock hauler and backyard chicken raiser must grow another 11.26 head of cattle in order to meet our consumption. So the next time someone tells you we must preserve our export market, you should probably slap 'em upside the head.*******
- 21k -
February 23, 2007
Where's the Beef?