Positioning Beef Quality Assurance for the next decade
June 30, 2008
Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) has been an important program in the Western and Midwestern states since the early 1980’s. As beef producers we have all seen the information on how BQA programs were successful in reducing the incidence of injection site blemishes. Although not all ranchers are BQA-Certified, nearly all are aware of the importance of correct administration of shots, recognizing and following proper withdrawl times, giving shots in front of the shoulder, and using the subcutaneous (Sub-Q) route of administration when possible.
I believe an even more important benefit of Beef Quality Assurance is that the national program most likely helped all beef producers by minimizing the amount of federal and state regulations on our industry. By implementing a voluntary program in response to a problem, and by documenting the dramatic improvements, beef producers provided evidence that they can recognize a problem and take voluntary steps to fix it. This was, and is, an important accomplishment that shows that beef producers are competent stewards that want to improve the quality of our product, taking additional steps to improve quality without any direct, immediate rewards.
So, as beef producers, we have a good example of a “success story” for the industry, for consumers, and for federal and state agencies to consider. But what have we done lately? I’m concerned that although we have adopted many of the BQA practices discussed in the 80’s and 90’s, we haven’t moved on to the next important issue in the beef industry and applied our combined efforts to improve the situation. So what ARE the next important topics to tackle? To spark some discussion, I’ll name a few.
As proud beef producers, we tend to be easily offended when someone, or some group, questions our production practices. However, the recent downer cow episode in California was another reminder that animal welfare and animal handling is an important topic for the industry. The BQA infrastructure already established in approximately 40 states is a good mechanism to try and develop educational tools focused on animal handling. Already several states have worked together, along with the BQA division of NCBA, in developing a cattle facilities checklist, animal transportation guidelines, and educational tools for auction barns discussing proper cattle handling. Many of these programs and publications are listed within the BQA section of NCBA’s website http://www.beefusa.org.
“Animal welfare” may not be the correct terminology to use – picking a more accurate, positive term may help consumers better identify with the time and effort ranchers invest in producing healthy, wholesome beef. Other terms have been suggested, such as “Animal stewardship” or the more traditional “Animal husbandry.” The goal is to illustrate a more positive industry where conscientious producers are raising healthy animals.
Many of the large companies that buy large quantities of beef have already developed and implemented their own guidelines for animal handling. These large companies already conduct packing plant audits and cooler audits to better guarantee their consumers of getting a wholesome product. Additionally, many of the smaller companies marketing branded products already focus their marketing on convincing the consumer that their product was produced in a wholesome manner. It would be a positive step for beef producers to voluntarily work with all segments of the industry to develop our own set of guidelines.
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Many states have implemented a youth quality assurance program, working with 4-H and FFA members to discuss proper health programs, nutrition, handling and stewardship of livestock projects that are destined for the County Fair. As many 4-H Educators will attest, many parents actively participate in these workshops along with their children.
In the past, many states have worked and communicated with one another in developing programs, but it has been up to each state (working with their respective Beef Councils, Universities, and Livestock Boards) to develop their own unique set of BQA guidelines and training materials. Developing a national set of guidelines would perhaps provide more uniformity across all states with active BQA programs. It would also provide a framework for those companies that have expressed interest in developing production standards for their products.
Addressing market cow issues will mean working with both the beef and dairy segments, but guidelines need to address topics such as: a) earlier culling, b) recognizing, sorting and managing based on body condition scores, c) cost-effective backgrounding periods for market cows, and d) altering cow management to better meet the consumer’s needs. As the nation’s beef herd continues to slowly shrink, culling will remain an important topic for beef producers.
Beef Quality Assurance remains a viable, healthy program predominantly because it was founded on voluntary participation. As grain prices continue to rise, resulting in higher food prices (including beef), we need to continue to actively work at stabilizing and growing the demand for beef. We all know that the typical urban consumer no longer has a connection to actual agriculture: very few consumers have visited an actual farm or ranch, and even fewer understand what normal production practices are. Continuing to develop Beef Quality Assurance guidelines in newer areas such as animal stewardship, animal handling, animal transportation and market cow management will help consumers feel comfortable with the idea of having beef in the center of their plate.