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Beef consumers spark revolutionary change for livestock producers
Special to the Times

Posted on Monday, August 1, 2005

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Beef consumers may not be aware of the impact of their changing buying habits, but they are sparking what experts described as a "revolution" for producers at a symposium sponsored by the University of Arkansas department of animal science. "Branded beef," which now accounts for about 20 percent of the beef sold in supermarkets, could change the way Arkansas farmers and ranchers raise cattle, said Dr. Gary Smith, of Colorado State University. He said branded beef could soon grow to more than half of the market.

Smith was one of five nationally recognized experts on marketing and genetics who spoke at the June 9-10 symposium, which Animal Science Department Head Keith Lusby said was part of the centennial celebration for the department.

Animal husbandry was one of the original departments when the College of Agriculture — now Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences — was established in 1905.

Dr. Tom Troxel, director of animal science extension programs for the UA System’s statewide Division of Agriculture, said the university is helping producers take advantage of new beef cattle marketing opportunities.

Smith said branded beef comes in distinctive packages and generates consumer loyalty by some combination of perceptions of quality, wholesomeness, animal welfare, and other qualities. "A key to success is a brand story," Smith said. The story might be about the brand’s distinctive eating quality, or that it is naturally or organically raised, or that it is raised entirely on grass or by local farmers, he said.

Dr. H. Glen Dolezal of Excel, a Cargill Foods company, said early brands focused on the strengths of specific breeds, such as Angus or Hereford, for traits like marbling. "Today, greater emphasis is placed on tenderness, leanness, traceability, portion size, and price point for food service, retail and export," he said.

Smith said only a very few brands are certified as "organic" because of the high cost of meeting tough USDA standards for organic certification.

A major benefit for packers and consumers is the USDA inspection service, which provides government certification that a particular brand meets the claims on the label, Smith said.

Getting Paid for Quality "Branded beef programs are the key to leading the beef industry out of the commodity business," Dolezal said. They increase opportunities for a producer to get paid to manage cattle for quality rather than just to minimize production costs per pound for the commodity market, he said. A producer now can contract with a company to raise cattle that meets a brand’s standards. Even with no contract, cattle that are "source verified" — sold as a group with a record of when and where the animals were born and how they were raised — bring a premium price. Other speakers at the seminar described advances in technology that give producers more control over the genetics of their cattle in order to produce beef with specific traits for a premium market. Within 10 years, DNA testing will be widely available for farmers and ranchers to select and breed cattle for branded beef products, said Dr. Larry Benyshek, a private consultant and former University of Georgia professor. DNA testing technology is being advanced with the help of National Institutes of Health funding for a bovine gene sequencing project, based on NIH interest in cattle as a model for human medicine, Dolezal said. One increasingly viable option for producers is to market their own beef brand, Smith said.

Ozark Pasture Beef Ozark Pasture Beef, LLC, was started in 2003 by nine Northwest Arkansas farmers who participated in a USDA-funded study of grass-fed beef production. University animal scientists from Arkansas and Tennessee and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service on the UA campus worked with the producers. Tim Johnson of Springdale said Ozark Pasture Beef is now available in the frozen meat sections at Marvin’s IGA and the Ozark Natural Foods Cooperative store in Fayetteville and Kirk’s Market in Eureka Springs. "It has been an uphill battle, but interest is picking up and we are getting calls back from people we contacted two years ago," Johnson said. The brand is just one marketing strategy used by the farmers, Johnson said. They also sell cattle through more conventional channels. One of the "promises" of the brand is that no antibiotics are used, so animals that have to be treated for an infection are marketed in other ways.

Johnson said Ozark Pasture Beef is for consumers seeking lean beef, raised naturally and locally, entirely on grass, with no antibiotics or hormones. When compared to beef from grain-fed cattle, pasture-finished beef has been found to contain higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids, which are reputed to provide certain health benefits.

Part of the appeal is simply that the meat is an alternative to commodity beef, Johnson said. "All of our calves are from cows owned by the producers, and we know the complete life history of every animal."

The beef is USDA inspected at the abattoir operated by the UA department of animal science, which harvests and packages the beef under contract with Ozark Pasture Beef, LLC.

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