Proposed USDA cattle rule would hurt meat quality, area producers say

Thursday, November 18, 2010
Gerry Shinn tags cattle with a radio frequency identification number at Performance Blenders in Jackson on Monday before loading the cattle onto a semi to travel to a processing plant in Kansas. (Kristin Eberts)

A proposed federal cattle marketing rule could mean lower quality meat on your dinner plate.

Cows may look the same, but there can be vast differences in the meat quality, according to Millersville cattle rancher Mike Kasten.

"There is a $400 discrepancy in actual value in the retail meat case" based on the quality of an animal's meat, he said.

Kasten and about 130 other cattle producers in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties now have a contract, through feed supplier Performance Blenders in Gordonville, with a meat packing company in Kansas where they aren't paid until after their cattle are butchered and graded for quality. The price they receive for each animal, tracked with a radio frequency identification chip, depends on whether the meat is graded select, choice or prime. Prime is the highest grade.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's livestock marketing rule changes, proposed by the Obama administration, are an effort to make the cash market for beef more competitive. Although the changes are meant to help cattle producers, Kasten said, the changes would eliminate deals like the one Performance Blenders has and only help those who are "lazy" with their animal husbandry practices.

Geoff Shinn, left, and father Gerry Shinn record information on each cow and tag cattle with a radio frequency identification number at Performance Blenders in Jackson on Monday before loading them onto a semi to travel to a processing plant in Kansas.

"After 100 years of a bad pricing system, we now have one that rewards us for our efforts. This law wipes that clean and throws us back," Kasten said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments on the proposed rule changes through Monday via e-mail at comments.gipsa@usda.gov.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, was one of 115 legislators who asked the USDA in September to do a "vigorous economic analysis" of the rule, but the department refused.

"Performance Blenders in Jackson is a prime example of how our forward-thinking agriculture community is adopting new technologies and using science to better feed the region and the nation," Emerson said in a statement. "I am concerned that any new rules will result in their product being treated as a commodity, and not the value-added product it is."

Advances in genetics have helped local cattle farmers to produce high-end meat, much of which is exported to Japan.

"We use bulls proven to have high carcass quality, and we stack genetics in the cattle," Kasten said. "In an average population that are processed, about 2 percent of beef grades prime. We have producers in this program that are getting 45 and 50 percent prime because of genetic selection."

Current base cattle prices are about $157 per 100 pounds. For lower quality meats, as much as $15 per 100 pounds will be subtracted from the base price. If a carcass is graded as choice, it receives an extra premium of $3.29 per 100 pounds. If it is graded as prime, it receives an extra $21 per 100 pounds.

"When were treated as a commodity producer, beef was beef was beef and our eating quality kept going down for decades. Now for the first time, we've seen a significant increase in eating quality because we're rewarded for it," Kasten said.

Since organizing the group of local beef producers about 10 years ago, Performance Blenders owner Gerald Shinn said they've received nearly $1 million in premiums and marketed 15,000 head of cattle.

Every two weeks, a truckload of cattle is sent to U.S. Premium Beef processing facilities in Liberal or Dodge City, Kan.

Each farmer contributes an average of five head to the load, giving them market access they wouldn't have without pooling together.

"It takes 40 animals to load the truck, and nobody I deal with can do 40 all by themselves," said Geoff Shinn, who works with his father at Performance Blenders.

After the animals are processed, the farmers receive detailed data and digital images of the meat they can use to improve their breeding in the future.

Performance Blenders started the program after the hog market crashed the mid-1990s and it saw its feed sales start to decline as local farmers got out of the hog business.

"We wanted to help keep people in business by helping shift them to beef production. If we have nobody to sell feed to, we wouldn't have anybody to keep us in business," Geoff Shinn said.

It's not known when the USDA will announce a decision on the proposed rule changes.

"I hope USDA takes the time to thoroughly review all relevant comments on this controversial proposal," Emerson said. "There is no reason to rush the process on a political or administrative timeline."

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

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6877 State Highway OO, Jackson MO

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