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Spirited View – for Dec. 6, 2010

I don’t know if I am going to open another can of worms — and I don’t think I have the solution — but it will feel better to at least get this off my chest.

The past six weeks have taken me on quite a trip at a hectic pace; even more so for my wife Erika as she has been holding down the home front. I travelled around three continents meeting importers, distributors, retailers and chefs selling and marketing beef products from our Heritage band of merry ranchers. To say that I have gained another level of perspective about the international beef market is an understatement.

Sometimes it’s good to get away from home and to look back to clear your vision. Often I think I hear too much of the “if it ain’t Alberta, it ain’t beef” BS, which most people here seem to believe.

What got me started along this line was an article in a recent Beef Information Centre report announcing that consumers today only have a bad eating experience with beef 20-25 per cent of the time. How pathetic is that! I don’t know about you, but if I was looking at a product that failed two to three times out of 10, I wouldn’t be buying it. Statements like this defi-nitely help me understand why consumers are choosing chicken over beef. It may not taste like much but at least it’s consistently that way.

Worse yet, in the beef production cycle we invest an average of 27 months in an animal from the time the cow is bred till there is a calf ready for slaughter. That is a long investment time to end up with a product offering that kind of failure rate. So who is at fault?

In a sense we all are, in one form or another.

Let’s start at the cow-calf level. For the most part I think the calves and yearlings being produced today are very good and have the genetic potential to be turned into world-class beef. Then the corners start getting cut. Where? For the most part I think it begins at weaning.

There is still a segment in this business that thinks it can make a living from selling weaned calves. I will let it think that, however the way those calves are weaned sets the stage for producing either great beef or jerky. When I am speaking about this to someone I often use the analogy that selling freshly weaned calves through the market is akin to throwing a cardboard container with a dozen eggs in the back of the truck and setting off for town. How many do you think will be cracked or broken by the time you get there? These green calves are similarly stressed and all the time and effort that has gone into breeding, calving and growing them out is put at risk. But this is the way Granddad and Dad did it, so I guess we’ll keep doing it.

Then they make it through the ring and on to the next step, the feedlot, where it’s all about fattening them faster, harder and bigger in the name of producing them cheaper. All the Band-Aids and tricks of the trade are used to manage costs and move them along as quickly as possible. Doesn’t anyone ask what this does to the final product we are all producing which is beef? Oh yes that’s right — we aren’t producing beef, we’re producing fat cattle. Let’s forget about putting out a product for endusers that performs consistently. To be fair to the feeders I understand their dilemma. Nobody is willing to pay for quality, at least not at the feedlot gate level. Packers are the ones who have that ability. However they are creatures of their own making, as well.

Packers are all about pushing volume through the system in order to get economies of scale. It’s a price-driven system. Reducing cost and pushing through volume create their margins. Selling on quality and consistency actually takes effort and hard work, most of all it takes time.

In order to create quality, consistency and value within our beef production system the connection needs to be made from birth to box and then to the BBQ.

Why am I ranting on this? Because I have spent a considerable amount of time with endusers of commodity Canadian beef who say they are looking to other sources because it lacks consistency of tenderness and is bland with poor flavour. The chefs ask me why this is, when other countries like the U.S. and Australia are pulling off some really good products from branded programs. I tell them it is because the commodity-based beef business in Canada is a dysfunctional family that has yet to figure out how to work together.

My solution? I don’t know. And as Erika tells me a lot, “it i. not your issue to solve, you have enough going on.”

Maybe it’s time to figure out what we are all producing.



Consumers today only have a bad eating experience with beef 20-25 per cent of the time. How pathetic is that

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