We have all heard the slogan “Beef, it's what's for dinner,” but the people who supply us with that beef are having a hard time putting dinner on their families' plates.

“The cost of cattle production has risen dramatically but the income has stayed the same,” said Glenn Nader, a University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) farm advisor who works with cattle ranchers in Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties. Using a combination of research developed by UC and other industry innovations, Nader is helping beef producers capture more income for each dollar spent.

“Ranchers need to find a niche to compete with the big guys,” he said. “We are moving them from marketing a commodity, live calves, to a product, processed meat, which is a major difference.”

According to Nader, the key to keeping costs down and finding that market niche is transportation. Ranchers must be close to a beef processing plant, as well as a community with disposable income. “If you have a small quantity of beef, it's extremely expensive to truck it all over the state,” he said. “The highest demand for niche market products is in places like the Bay Area, where people are willing to vote with their food purchases, not just look for the lowest price.”

Weaning change

Another area Nader has been working on is weaning, the process of separating a calf from its mother. Ranchers usually lock the calves in a corral and the mothers are taken away to a pasture. This separation, changes in the physical environment and a new diet of hay instead of grass put the calves through a great deal of stress.

With research developed by UC Davis animal scientist Ed Price and Nader, new weaning techniques are producing healthier calves and, in the long run, a better consumer product. “Fence line weaning” separates the calves and their mothers by only a fence. The calves don't become emotionally stressed and it keeps them out of a corral.

“By not having the calves scrunched together in a corral, there is less of a chance for disease to spread,” Nader said.

Price's studies on fence line weaning are very successful. Studies show calves that went through fence line weaning had an 80-pound weight gain over those who didn't.

Another revolution in the beef industry is video marketing. Instead of loading up cattle and hauling them miles away and paying heavy transportation costs, buyers can get an early look at them on the Internet. With the click of a mouse, ranchers can have their calves sold without all the excess labor.

The Quality Assurance Program (QAP), created by UCCE, is yet another way to help ranchers get more for their money. QAP improves the administration of veterinary medical products to animals. When giving cows injections, for instance, the needle is slipped under the skin instead of piercing the muscle. This eliminates any chance of bruising the cow's muscle. When the muscle is bruised by injections, it has to be trimmed out, costing the rancher in reduced returns.

Changing the traditions of raising cattle involves risk and, Nader acknowledged, it's challenging to get people to listen to new ideas. “Unless you can give them a demonstration, they aren't going to buy into it,” he said. “You have to find a neighbor who wants to show off to everyone else and that will set the new status quo.”