Peter Zimmel, with the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) in Columbia, offered a picture of where the industry stands in the current economy. Through graphs, he showed retail sales were down, including traffic at restaurants. Fast food operations like McDonald's are still doing better than traditional sit-down restaurants.
The one positive note he found was people have saved 5 percent of their disposable income, a 14-year high.
For the cattleman, Zimmel saw cattle herds shrinking, which would likely tighten supplies and raise prices. The number of animals kept back for breeding have dropped, and there are fewer replacement heifers, meaning it will be harder to rebuilt herds and harder to cut herd numbers further.
One project the University of Missouri has undertaken involves bringing in four or five cattle producers, creating an operation on paper similar to theirs and then running projections on what will happen. Studies on these representative farms are being done nationwide. Zimmel said the two-year spread suggests a turnaround in the current situation is not likely before next year.
Altering a cattle operation takes time, according to Zimmel. A female brought into the herd takes two years to mature to produce a calf, then the calf needs six months to wean before it is ready to sell. Growing that calf to marketable maturity can take 12 to 15 months, leaving cattlemen few quick options for their cash flow.
With the price of potassium and phosphorous up 118 percent last year, a number of producers are cutting down on fertilizing. Zimmel said one can do that for a year, but forage needs fertilizer for pastures to stay viable. Until cattle prices recover, he anticipated producers would cut back in every area. All input costs, especially feed and diesel, have ridden them hard.
Steve Willard, president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association from Willow Springs, talked about efforts in Missouri and by the National Cattlemen's Association to improve laws to help the industry. In Missouri, the association is lobbying to have cattle taxed as personal property and get cattle theft boosted to a felony crime. Willard said efforts have been successful in getting $10 million of the $15 million in cuts to the Extension Service restored.
A significant concern, according to Willard, is Missouri's rules on getting a petitioned initiative on the state ballot. It is felt that animal rights groups in other states have pushed their agendas forward with one weekend's work in gathering 1,000 signatures, even paying for those signatures. The cattlemen want to raise the number of names needed for such petitions, require signatories to be taxpayers in the state and ban paying for signatures.
Nationally, the cattlemen have sided with those trying to reopen slaughterhouses for horses to export the meat to Europe. Willard said abandoning horses or leaving them to starve is not a good alternative. The Environmental Protection Administration's regulation on dust has posed an unreasonable burden on farm operations, and plans to end the Bush administration's cap on the Estate Tax could further hurt already struggling family ag operations.
Rod Geisert, director of animal sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, offered a substitute presentation when one of the planned speakers became ill. Despite the economy, he said, freshman enrollment in the animal sciences department is up 25 percent, making a record high of 450 undergraduates. Programs teaching beef, horse and swine production have all increased. Swine and beef clubs are now active.
Three areas of research are showing particular promise. Geisert said the Grow Safe Equipment has been measuring what an animal eats along with regular weighing. This helps determine which genes lead to more efficiency in processing food, a medium inheritable trait.
The gene chip for beef and dairy cattle measures 40,000 points of DNA to monitor traits. Geisert expected this technology to help develop genotype selection. Dr. Jerry Taylor at MU has received an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pursue this line of study.
Another line of study has found a way to use pigs as models for human diseases. Dr. Randall Prather has found a way to make the symptoms for a number of illnesses, like cystic fibrosis and retinitis pigmentosa, show up in pigs, which has not happened with any regularity in mice. This gives researchers working on a cure more non-human subjects, and a much greater chance to gain ground on treatments.
At a time when efficiency in operations is critical to survival, Joe Horner with the Extension Service talked about how traditional cow-calf operations have led to the evolution of the stocker enterprise. Cow-calf producers often end up with an animal here and there that has not been dehorned, or not gotten vaccinated, or bulls that haven't been neutered. Backgrounders buy these odd animals, clean them up and sell them in lots to recapture their value.
Horner said a cattle producer has as much money in a good calf as in a mediocre one. Through the use of computer chips and ear tags, an animal going to market can be assessed after slaughter, and the information about that animal can get back to the producer.
By attaching information to the calves, production techniques can be improved through genetics. Horner emphasized a cow-calf producer can do the same thing a backgrounder does, saving the need for having another person involved buying and selling livestock. With 54,000 small cow-calf herds in Missouri, Horner said there are many opportunities where a focused effort can improve the herd and thus the profit.
The Southwest Missouri Cattlemen's Association produced a chili dinner served to those attending. The conference was offered as a cooperative effort between the Monett Chamber of Commerce, the Cattlemen's Association and the University of Missouri Extension Service.