Beef industry faces down chickens, economy, and misconceptions

BOZEMAN -- The beef industry is fighting challenges on all sides, participants said during the 2010 Montana Livestock Forum and Nutrition Conference at Montana State University.

Beef not only faces stiff competition from chicken, but the industry deals with headlines that discourage people from eating red meat and "faulty science" that says organic meat is healthier than beef raised on traditional ranches, speakers said. The industry wants to convince people concerned about animal rights that they, too, care about animals and humane treatment.

"Agriculture is under attack," said Jacque Matsen, director of issues and reputation management for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Part of Matsen's job is correcting inaccurate claims about the beef industry, so she monitors headlines, Hollywood movies, articles about the beef industry, comments by activist groups and more. Bad news about beef, myths and a faceless industry lead to consumers who feel guilty about eating beef, Matsen said. She tries to build consumer trust by sharing positive information about beef and people in the industry. She wants consumers to know, for example, that ranchers are good people who care about the environment and safe products.

MSU Extension Beef Specialist John Paterson, conference organizer and MSU professor of animal science, said ranchers and farmers are now using mass media techniques, such as Facebook, Twitter and other modern media to rally support for the beef industry when attacked by animal rights organizations. Three groups, for example, made major contributions to the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights organization. When ranchers found out, they spread the word that the "Humane Society is not our friend," and said they would stop supporting the groups that made the donations.

Paterson explained that the beef industry sees the Humane Society of the United States as a lobbying group that wants to do away with beef cattle. Its name is confusing, he said, and many people think the society focuses most of its money and attention on the proper care of pets.

"It does not," he said.

Other conference speakers said the beef industry is trying to convince consumers that beef is safe to eat, despite reports of mad cow disease in recent years. Consumer demand is a major issue in the industry, added Butch Bratsky of Billings, senior banking executive with the Stockman Financial Corporation.

"We definitely have the supply to meet increased demand," Bratsky said.

Paterson said he doesn't expect demand to increase much, however, until people return to work and the economy improves. Many consumers are "eating down" or "trading down," he said. That means beef eaters might be more eating more hamburger at home instead of higher-priced cuts in a restaurant. Instead of buying the highest priced cuts of beef, they're eating the less expensive cuts.

"If you are having to be frugal, you are not in the mood to spend $100 on a meal at a restaurant," Paterson said.

He added, though, that "There are some groups that claim they have people that will eat high-quality beef no matter what the price. That's true. I have seen that."

The Montana Livestock Forum and Nutrition Conference was held April 6 and 7 on the MSU campus, with the first day focusing on global issues and the second day on more technical matters, such as winter hay management and strategic protein supplementation.

Speaker Mac White, a rancher from Two Dot, said he read an article that said the best way to feed hay uses the least amount of diesel fuel and iron. By iron, he referred to machinery and processing.

"I came to the conclusion that the article was wrong," White said.

He has found that cows probably eat only 25 percent of their hay when it's in the form of giant bales left in a field, White said. When the hay is ground and put into feed bunks, however, the percentage goes up to 90 or 95 percent. Processing the hay that way leads to higher consumption.

An endowment from Paul and Barb Grieco with the MSU Foundation established the Beef Cattle Lecture Series that brought Janice Swanson to this year's conference. Paul Grieco is a professor in MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Swanson is director of the Animal Behavior and Welfare Group at Michigan State University, and her primary responsibility is providing outreach and programming in the areas of research, Extension, teaching and service to address issues related to the welfare of animals. Her focus is on farm livestock and poultry.

By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or