|Suspicious of the Good Cow Market|
I was visiting with Bill in Alabama. He’s a cattleman, a bit of a philosopher and a constant worrier. I mentioned one of my friends had sold a set of 520-pound feeder cattle for $1.99 a pound! That’s more than a thousand dollars a head!
"I know," said Bill, "I’ve sold some myself, but…" then he paused and added, "I’m wondering if the price is getting too high?"
I cast a skeptical eye, but he was serious.
"Whadya mean?" I asked
"Is it possible that the price will drive people away from beef and ruin our business?" he said.
I immediately thought of Yogi Berra’s observation, "No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded."
Due to the government’s cheap-food policy re-established with each new Farm Bill and the tremendous advances in production brought on by modern ag technology, food prices have stayed cheap in relation to other essential commodities.
I compared the number of 500-pound feeder cattle it took to buy a new ¾-ton pickup in the last four decades. In the 1970s, it took 22 head; in the ’80s, it took 36 head; in the ’90s, it took 72; and, in the 2000s, it took 79 head. With each passing decade, the farmer’s product declined in value relative to his costs. Then suddenly in 2012 the number of feeders it took to buy a pickup dropped to 64 head! That’s back to the mid-80s average.
We in agriculture have grown used to being treated like Cinderella’s stepchild or the kindly, old hick uncle who still has cows, plants a garden and drives a real tractor. The consumer believes we live a simple life: Ma and Pa Kettle, like the sod-busters on the plains who need to be protected by the hero (a congressman or senator) who shoots the bad guy and runs off with the farmer’s daughter!
It would be an eye opener for a good portion of consumers to spend a day with a Washington feedlot operator, Illinois corn grower, Georgia seed stock producer, Utah rancher or an Arkansas cotton farmer. To see computer projections of average daily gain, soil testing, laser leveling, vineyard irrigation systems, dairy genetic selections, swine and poultry’s meticulous ration calculations, and the voluminous scientific research being used in all phases of agriculture.
The corn seed or semen sample put to work on our farms and ranches every day has as much technology behind it as a satellite on its way to Mars. But the trusting consumer doesn’t see all that. They only see us driving a grain truck out to the mill or taking a trailer load of feeders to the sale. We, in our greasy overalls or well-worn cowboy hat, are the tip of the technological, tried-and-trusted, diligent, essential iceberg putting food on their table.
So if the price of beef, grain, milk and strawberries are now a little closer to what they are really worth, I’m gonna be thankful. Of course, if corn hits 10 bucks, I just might start to worry.
Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website, www.baxterblack.com.