The cattle are part of the Pasture to Plate program begun in Hardin County last year. The program is designed to help beef producers gauge their cattle's quality and make management decisions to improve their herds to better meet consumer demand and, ultimately, to improve their own bottom line.
Under the program, the cattle remain under the ownership of the Hardin County farmers but are included in a larger program conducted by Iowa State University. Iowa State oversees the program when the cattle arrive at the feedlot through to the packing plant. Individual records are kept on each animal and sent to producers.
Those producers include Chuck Crutcher, who on one of the hottest days of the year patiently walked group after group of calves to and from the scales. The Rineyville-area farmer said the program allows producers to know if their cattle are finishing at prime, choice or select grades. The consumer wants the top grades - prime or choice - and that can mean an additional 25 cents or so per pound for the producer, he said.
“That's money in my pocket,” said Crutcher, who was instrumental in starting the program in Kentucky. Using grade information can allow a producer to improve the herd genetics on his farm to produce cattle that attain a prime grade, he said.
“It's easy to sell right off the farm never knowing the final product, but you've got to take some pride in what you are doing and it's got to start at the grassroots,” he said. “If we don't satisfy the consumer, they are going to switch to another meat, and we certainly don't need that.”
Crutcher said the program would not be available without the support of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Doug Shepherd, Hardin County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, is overseeing the project and was working alongside Crutcher at the livestock barn manning the scales.
The cattle being weighed and graded at the livestock center had already been worked on the farm where they were ear-tagged with both a numbered tag and an electronic identification button and given the same vaccinations that are required for the state CPH-45 sale, Shepherd said. At the livestock center, U.S. Department of Agriculture graders are putting a grade on them and also pricing the cattle so producers would know the value of the cattle if they had been sold on that day in Ky.
“They can compare that to the end value they will receive at the end of the feeding program and see if it was worth their time to retain ownership from the farm to the packing plant,” Shepherd said.
Using the information from the program will allow the USDA's Animal Research Service to develop a cattle ultrasound database. The ultrasound is used to measure fat and ribeye thickness. The ISU program is where the ultrasound standard for the United States was established, Shepherd noted, so Hardin County producers wanted to be part of that.
“It allows our producers to find out for sure what kind of cattle they are producing,” he said. “We are seeing some pretty drastic changes with producers who have been in the program. They've already gone in and purchased some bulls that, based on carcass traits, will help them increase the carcass quality in the calves.”
The ISU program started in the 1980s and, today, 15 states are using it. Generally, they run 8,000 to 12,000 head through about 10 or 11 feedlots in southwest Iowa. Iowa State determines feed rations, how the cattle are treated and vaccination programs when they arrive at feedlot. Anytime they are worked at the feedlot, ISU personnel are there. They also oversee the carcass data and send it back to Kentucky. Producers receive feed efficiency and carcass data on each of the calves.
Shepherd said the Hardin County program shipped two loads of cattle in June 2005 from seven producers and another three loads in December 2005 from 14 producers. The cattle they were working this day were shipped in June for three producers, and an additional group may be shipped in about a month. The participants have been from Hardin, Grayson and Meade counties.
Hardin County was able to secure grants in 2005 and 2006 from the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy to help its producers cover transportation costs and some of the marketing costs. Producers from other counties can participate in the program but would not be entitled to the grant funds.
The ultimate goal is to produce top quality beef and be paid a premium for doing so. In past groups, producers saw price differences of up to $300 a head, Shepherd said. They can use the data as a culling tool to have more profitable calves.
“Right now, we are sharing all the data, because it is a learning tool,” he said. “After the cattle are processed, we get a closeout report and we'll bring in UK beef and meat specialists who will go over data calf by calf with the producers.