The Cow-Calf Manager
Livestock Update, April 2008
Dr. John B. Hall, Extension Beef Specialist, VA Tech
The Future of the Virginia Beef Industry
During one of the last discussions I had with beef producers before leaving Virginia, it was suggested that I discuss the future of the Virginia Beef Industry as I see it. I believe the future of the Virginia Beef Industry is strong. There are many opportunities, but still some challenges in the years to come. I can’t cover all of them, but here are some of the major opportunities and challenges.
Grass and water. One of the greatest opportunities or strengths of the VA beef industry is water and forage. After last year that is hard to believe. However, in a majority of years water and forage are plentiful. Climatic conditions in Virginia, like those in Kentucky and Tennessee, lack extremes of cold, excessive heat, and variations in moisture. These conditions are almost ideal for cattle production with limited use of stored forages or alternative feeds. Look at the climatic data for most of Virginia and you will see the average amount of moisture for any given month is between 3 and 4 inches. Combine that with the temperate climate and cattle can be grazing 9 to 10 months out of the year in most years.
This opportunity does not come without responsibility. Producers will have to continue to be good stewards of the resource as they have been in the past. However, new partnerships between beef producers and conservationists as well as government agencies such as NRCS will be needed. Adoption of management techniques such as increasing legumes to reduce fertilizer costs, stockpiling, and managed grazing will be essential to controlling production costs.
Genetics. Virginia has one of the best and deepest seedstock industries of any state in the US. All one has to do is look in any AI catalog to see how great an impact Virginia has on the purebred beef industry. In addition, high quality commercial heifers are available through the VA Premium Assured Heifer program and similar programs. This means that commercial beef producers have access to top genetics that are regionally adapted. Emphasis on performance has been a hallmark of the VA seedstock industry. This is not only a testament to the excellent breeders in the state, but also to educational leaders such as Curtis Mast, A. L. “Ike” Eller, and Scott Greiner.
Producers need to take advantage of this seedstock bonanza by understanding the greater beef industry in which their cattle will have to function. By understanding which traits are needed by the industry to make the best beef for the consumer while retaining traits that are important for the commercial cow-calf operator, producers will have cattle that will be profitable as the beef industry evolves. Producers need to educate themselves on how to select the traits and breed combinations that produce a desirable product in a profitable package.
Value added markets. Virginia has been a leader in valued added cattle marketing since the first special graded feeder cattle sale. Since that time programs such as VA Quality Assured feeder cattle, source and age verification, and VA Retained Ownership program have allowed VA producers to garner premiums for employing additional management practices. Coordinated efforts of the VA Cattlemen’s Association, VDACS, and VT will provide access to value added markets for a majority of producers. The VA beef industry’s unique location to population centers with people with high disposable income means niche markets will be available for specialty products such as grass fed, natural, or organic beef. While I believe these niche markets will only market a small portion of VA cattle, they represent an opportunity.
To be part of the future VA Beef Industry, producers must be willing to adopt the management practices and breeding programs that will allow cattle to be eligible for value added programs. Producers will also need to be willing to give up some independence and work in groups in order to maximize the advantages of value added marketing. Producers cannot stand still in value added marketing just as now the special graded sales are “average” when once they were a form of value added marketing.
Industry infrastructure. Virginia has a good beef industry infrastructure. Could it be better? Yes, and if the industry makes a concerted effort in leadership development it will improve. However, just having a cattlemen’s organization, a department of agriculture, and a land-grant university that are willing to work together to assist beef producers is amazing to many states. Add in local cattlemen’s organizations, livestock markets, roads, and trucking and you can see the infrastructure is pretty good.
Educational opportunities. Virginia has some of the best education opportunities of many states. Whether it is the local County Agent or cattlemen’s groups or beef specialists from Virginia Tech, producers sometimes have almost too many educational opportunities. When you add some of the great beef producers that are willing to share their knowledge with other producers or provide leadership, the opportunities are almost endless. It will be up to the VA beef producers to use these educational opportunities, and to ensure the delivery system for education remains intact.
Availability of land. Urban sprawl continues to gobble up considerable in acreage every year in Virginia. In addition, the transfer of a large portion of agricultural land to another generation may limit the amount of land available for beef production, at least at a reasonable price. Many acres of land suitable for beef production remain idle due to inability of interested parties to gain long-term leases. Virginia is far behind other Mid-Atlantic states in farm land preservation or agriculturally friendly land legislation. Proactive education and politics is needed to create an environment where agricultural land is valued for agricultural purposes.
Fuel and feed prices. Every beef producer is struggling with these issues. Many of VA cattle are fed in neighboring states by producers who tend to be silage rather than grain producers. It is to VA beef producers’ advantage to continue to create relationships with feeders as well as producing the type of cattle they need. Virginia’s forage base is the key to offsetting high grain prices and more cattle will need to be kept as stockers to produce heavier feeders. Decreased reliance on harvested forages and a greater use of extended grazing will be key factors to offset high fuel prices. Improving quality of forages that are harvested is also important.
Lack of understanding of the value of the beef industry to Virginia. If this doesn’t strike a nerve with you it needs to! As a disclaimer this represents my opinion. Every one of us is to blame for this problem including me. The VA Beef Industry is the NUMBER 2 agricultural industry in the state! Let’s say that again….beef is the number 2 agricultural industry in the state. It has the potential to continue to influence the Virginia economy at that level and greater. With proper support it could grow. How many Virginians that are not beef producers understand that fact? How many people appreciate what beef production could mean to Virginia? Just ask anyone who worked on the Southside beef initiative? Compare the amount of beef cattle research and extension resources in Virginia to states such as Kentucky and Tennessee. How many people understand that the beef and timber industries are the reasons for open space in Virginia? I have said enough, but you get the point. Each beef producer needs to be a positive proactive spokesperson for the industry.
To paraphrase a historic quote: How stands the VA beef industry? “Oak bottomed and copper clad.”
I wish nothing but the best for the Virginia Beef Industry and Virginia Tech. Take care of them. For each of you I hope for tall grass, pregnant cows, and healthy calves.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve the Virginia Beef Industry.