Last month’s National Cattlemen’s Beef Association annual convention in Tampa, Fla., demonstrated how times are changing both in the cattle industry and the consumer world.

Economic futurist Lowell Catlett, PhD, spoke to over 1,000 attendees at the 2013 Cattlemen’s College, sponsored by Zoetis. Delivering the keynote address, the regent’s professor in agricultural economics, agricultural business and extension economics at New Mexico State University, talked about where we’ve been, where we are and the boundless potential of where we, in agriculture, can be in the future.

Now in its 20th year, Catlett noted the change in topics at Cattlemen’s College over the years. “When Cattlemen’s College started we didn’t talk about carbon sequestration, climate change or market price of corn like we do now, and in the next 20 years we’ll talk about different things than these,” he said. “We get through these changes. The resilience of the human spirit is incredible as we experience different crises and changes.”

Catlett said the beef industry is strategically placed to grow and we have to think about that growth. “Seven billion people live on this planet, and one billion live a good life. They can demand natural or organic or free range or traceable products.” Another billion is on their way there. One more billion, he said, has come out of abject poverty to a better standard of living. “They want beef. And per capita consumption is increasing. In the last five years we saw over 300 million Chinese wanting beef. They want to have a higher quality and standard of life.” The remaining four billion, said Catlett, still struggle just to maintain a living.

Dave Nichols of Nichols Farms, Bridgewater, Iowa, noted the advances in production efficiencies using genetic technology, ultrasound and more. Years ago it took him four acres to run a cow-calf pair that produced a 500+lb. calf. Now it takes 1.8 acres for a pair that produces a 700+lb. calf. The beef industry continues to strive for efficiency.

Cattle care has evolved
It was apparent in many of the Cattlemen’s College sessions that cattle producers have also evolved when it comes to cattle care and handling. Stockmanship expert Curt Pate and his daughter Mesa did live demonstrations on handling cattle on foot and on horseback, emphasizing low-stress techniques. “We need to train our cattle for the biggest jobs of their lives like getting bred and having calves or gaining weight in the feedlot,” Curt Pate said. “Handling really helps.”

Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, Kansas State University, gave a presentation on animal welfare to a packed room at Cattlemen’s College, explaining where animal welfare has been and where it needs to go in the cattle industry. He said programs such as the Beef Quality Assurance cow-calf, feedyard and stocker assessments, s. audits, are the way to make real change on operations. “Doing audits is like teaching to the test and checking boxes,” he says. “With assessments, veterinarians can get to where they need to go on operations, talk about production and solve issues, not just check a box.”

Thomson delivered one of the best quotes I heard at the meeting when he defined animal welfare. “Animal welfare is doing the chores. It’s the preventive medicine, proper nutrition and doing what’s right.”

And from what I saw on my trip to Tampa, is that a lot of cattle producers – and their veterinarians – are doing it right.