Beef cattle grazing on green pasture. Blue sky in background. rasica/Thinkstock

Reader's Choices: 10 Greatest Beef Innovations

History of American beef industry progress is detailed in these ten stories.

In the June 2011 issue of Beef Producer our readers chose the ten greatest innovations in the history of the beef industry. Because some of these stories had to be cut quite a bit to fit the magazine we've chosen to offer them in full length version here on the Web site so you can get all the details and clikk links to other sources.

 

Artificial Insemination Has Rich History
After more than 300-years, artificial insemination is staple of today's beef industry.
By J.T. Smith

 

Artificial insemination always has been aimed at speeding up the rate of genetic improvement. AI may be more effective today than ever - even though it goes back many years.

Some accounts claim an Arab chief used AI as early as 1322 A.D. to mate his prized mare with a stallion owned by an enemy. (In other words, he snuck over and stole the stud's semen).

In 1677, a scientist named Leeuwenhoek saw sperm through a newly discovered microscope. By 1780, Spallanzani in Italy found a dog could be impregnated with the cellular portion of semen. He also found that sperm could be inactivated by cooling and reactivated later.

About 1900, Professor E.I. Ivanov (aka "Ivanhoff") was hired by the Russian throne to develop AI for horses. By 1933, he had developed methods for collecting semen and using AI with horses, cattle, sheep and swine.

A Dane researcher named Sorenson established the first AI cooperative in Denmark in 1933. E.J. Perry, a New Jersey dairyman, was in Denmark at that time, and he returned with a Dane (Larson) to establish the first AI co-op in the U.S. in 1937.

That marked the beginning of the com­mercial AI era in the U.S. as seven AI cooperatives had been established by 1939.

By 1949, some of the first spermatozoa cells were successfully frozen in England.

The commercialization of AI in the cattle industry developed rapidly but depended on three big discoveries:

* development of semen extenders that protected sperm cells against temperature shock and allowed cold storage

* that bull semen could be extended to breed large numbers of cows from each ejaculate

* methods for frozen storage of bull spermatozoa

Now seeing payoff

Despite so many years of AI, Lanny Vinson of Vinson Ranches, Ovalo, Texas, says the technology is just now showing its true ability to dramatically improve cattle herds and the overall beef industry.

"I think there's probably been more progress made in the last 10 or 15 years with AI than everything that went before then," he reflects.

The veteran with both AI and embryo transplants says in the '70s and '80s, there's no doubt some advances in beef were made, but such readily available technology and rapid adoption may have outpaced the knowledge of the industry back then. "There's no doubt in the 1970s — and 1980s, too — some inferior bulls were propagated just because we had the technology," Vinson says. "So the AI technology was there, but a lot of producers were using it without good information on the bulls."

But in recent years, that all has changed with vast information on bulls.

"Because of data on bulls today, we can use DNA markers to make AI a much more valuable tool now," Vinson notes.

The result of using such genetics is uniformity, productivity and excellence — where one highly selected sire can be mated with thousands of females.

Glen Halfmann of Halfmann Red Angus at Miles, Texas, agrees with Vinson that AI is just now hitting its stride in the beef industry. "AI is even more important now than ever since we're making so much genetic progress so fast," Halfmann says.

He says AI fits with expected progeny differences, marbling quality of beef, maternal traits and so many other important characteristics.

The Red Angus breed also is using data on bulls for AI programs in its maintenance of energy genetics. "That's real important today when you consider feed costs for a cow," Halfmann assures.

In addition, AI has been tweaked to be far more efficient and less time-consuming. Through using AI synchronization nowadays, Halfmann can artificially inseminate 50 females the same day, where in the past, without AI synchronization, the breeding would have been spread over many days.

"I'd say AI is definitely more important now than ever," Halfmann says.

Vinson adds that with the enormous amount of data on animals today, both his AI and embryo transplant work benefit.

"Today, if a producer is not using AI with all the data we have available — he is really behind," Vinson concludes.

 

Antibiotics Changed Our Outlook on Life
Long lives, more survival, denser operations all result from antibiotics.
By Alan Newport

 

Only 70 or 80 years ago, the smallest cut or even a little cold could end in death from bacterial infection, for us or for our animals. Since that time, we've come to expect our own bodies and the animals we care for are far more likely to live than to die.

Even when Texas rancher and veterinarian Watt Casey began practicing veterinary medicine back in 1949, he says sulfa drugs and penicillin could cure a great many illnesses and injuries.

Albert Schatz, who actually discovered streptomycin in October 1943 as a Rutgers University graduate student, says he was driven by a desire to overcome the diseases and suffering he saw around him.

He later wrote: "It is hard to imagine what life was like in the pre-antibiotic era. During my early years in school, some of my classmates, friends and relatives died of infectious diseases. When I worked in army hospitals in World War II, I saw firsthand the tragedy of uncontrollable gram-negative bacteria. They were killing wounded servicemen, some of whom had been flown back to the U.S. from the North African campaign. I isolated and identified the deadly bacteria. That was the easy part. I often spent many hours at night with servicemen as they were dying. That was the hard part."

Many people remember Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Yet it never caught on as a medical treatment until after 1941, when a doctor in England actually tried it on a patient who was dying of a bacterial infection in a wound.

One could argue the modern antibiotic era began with the discovery of synthetic antimicrobial chemicals known as sulfonamides by a German researcher in 1935. These were a boon to agriculture and human medicine alike. They stopped reproduction of many bacteria.

But they had some problems. One of the worst was potential kidney blockage and damage. The buildup of crystals in the kidneys from administration of these drugs required they be used as little as possible.

On the other hand, folk medicine has used less scientifically prepared antibiotic compounds for centuries. For example:

* In 3500 B.C., Sumerian doctors gave patients beer soup mixed with snake skins and turtle shells.

* Babylonian doctors healed the eyes with an ointment of frog bile and sour milk.

* The Greeks used several herbs to heal ailments.

All of these treatments contained some sort of antibiotic — it just wasn't isolated. Incidentally, most antibiotic compounds are isolated from bacteria in soil.

The rapid-fire discovery of many antibiotic compounds over 20 to 30 years made the technology seem invincible, and disease after disease fell before the onslaught of these wonderful compounds.

Historically, contagious diseases limited how many animals could be held in any single flock or herd. Confine too many animals, and disease could run rampant.

Antibiotics changed all that. Quickly, the size of livestock operations rose and per-unit production costs fell.

Today more bacteria are increasing resistance to antibiotics, and far fewer new compounds are coming on the market. Both animal and human medicine must increase diligence in using these wonder drugs.

 

 

Barbed Wire Shaped Western America
Fortunes made and land transformed by the invention of wire with barbs built in.
By Dan Crummett

 

If the end of the Civil War opened the Old West era, the coming of barbed wire shortly thereafter marked the beginning of the end of that much-heralded period in U.S. history.

After the end of the Civil War, the Great Plains became a destination rather than an obstacle to westward movement for our young nation's growing population. As settlers, mainly farmers and ranchers, moved into the open spaces, normal fencing materials on which they depended east of the Mississippi River became scarce.

Still, the lush prairie was ideal for grazing cattle, and new developments with steel plows made the prairie soils ripe for growing crops — a dichotomy that would rumble across the Plains in violent confrontations between ranchers and farmers for years. Barbed wire would play a part in that turmoil, and its use eventually would be found to protect crops and to make intensive animal agriculture economically possible in the vast Plains.

The first U.S. patent for barbed wire was issued to Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, in 1867, but the barbed wire we know today became popular in 1874 when Joseph Glidden, DeKalb, Ill., perfected it and received patents on his version. At that time, Glidden, Jacob Haish, Frances Washburn and Isaac Ellwood were known as the "Big Four" in the development and marketing of the specialized wire. By 1874, Glidden and Ellwood were through fighting one another for various patent rights and joined forces to form the Barb Fence Co. in DeKalb.

The real boost for the new technology — which had just recently begun to spark the imagination of cattlemen — came in 1876 when an associate of Ellwood, John Warner Gates, fenced off Military Plaza (the area in front of the Alamo in San Antonio) and penned cattle there successfully. That first "demonstration project" convinced the crowd of barbed wire's ability to restrain cattle, and within a few hours Gates had become relatively wealthy in the lobby of the nearby Menger Hotel, taking orders for the wire for Ellwood's Illinois company.

Not long afterward, however, Gates parted company with Ellwood and started his own unlicensed and highly successful barbed-wire manufacturing business in Texas. Finally, as the industry began to consolidate with more than 150 manufacturers making wire for the demand the Old West was creating, Ellwood and Gates buried the hatchet and created the American Steel and Wire Co. That firm would later become part of U.S. Steel Corp., which held a monopoly in the market into the 20th century.

Because barbed wire was an economical way of enclosing large tracts of land, it became popular with cattle and land companies dependant upon grazing the millions of acres of the Great Plains, both north and south. By the 1880s, enough competition existed in the Plains that northern cattle migrating away from blizzards became a problem for southern ranchers, and all cattle were a problem to farmers trying to grow crops. In 1885 southern ranches had fenced their northern borders to prevent migrating herds, and extreme weather killed up to 75% of the migratory cattle at the fence line in what is known as the "Big Die Up."

Range wars involving cattlemen who wanted to maintain the open range and those who didn't, along with farmers who wanted to be left alone, erupted through the period, until a federal law passed in 1885 prevented fencing across public domain lands. Within 15 years, enough wire had been stretched on private property that "open range" was a relic term for the history books, and many historians say that fact, alone, was the end of the Old West, as it made migration of native populations of humans, buffalo and introduced cattle impossible.

 

Electric Fence First On XIT Ranch
First claimed to be cheaper, need less posts and serve as a telephone line.
By J.T. Smith

 

In 1882, Texas was just itching to build its grand state Capitol building in Austin — aiming to make its dome slightly higher than the U.S. Capitol.

A lofty idea — there was no place for small thoughts in Texas, of course. Trouble was, Texas had bold plans but no money.

So the state bartered to build.

By May of that year, Texas had traded 3 million acres of land up on the Plains to Chicago investors in exchange for building the state Capitol. The Chicago group was known as the Capitol Syndicate.

The Capitol Syndicate immediately began fencing its millions of acres. It had to do this rapidly as herd after herd trudged across the High Plains up from South Texas to stock what, at the time, was considered sort of a barren wasteland. The Texans thought they got the best of the trade with the Chicago investors.

The vanguard was bossed by Ab Blocker, who suggested the famed "XIT" brand.

In its heyday, as the world's largest ranch, the XIT ran 150,000 cattle on its seven divisions. The XIT Ranch was so large it comprised all or parts of 10 counties running down the border with New Mexico. So cowboy lore had it the XIT brand stood for "Ten in Texas." Closer to reality, it may have just been a difficult brand for rustlers to change.

Thousands of miles

With all of its border and interior cross fencing, more than 6,000 miles of wire and fencing materials were required for fencing this titanic Texas ranch. The XIT used so much barbed wire, it bought fence staples by the carload.

This was costing the Chicago investors lots of money and time. So in 1888, an electric fence was used for the first time on the XIT Ranch.

That year, D.H Wilson of the United States Electric Fence Co. contracted to fence one of the XIT pastures and construct a 30-mile telephone line, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

The idea was that electricity from a generator using an overshot wheel would charge the top two wires of a four-wire fence. This electrified fence was supposed to need far fewer fence posts, cause less injury to cattle than traditional barbed wire, and even enable fence riders (cowboys riding the fence) to communicate with the ranch headquarters by telephone!

The nearby LX Ranch of W.H. Bates and David T. Beals north of Amarillo (the brand and part of the land later owned by the Lee Bivins Estate) soon decided it would experiment with the "electric fence." But LX cowboys were skeptical about the innovation, and the electric fence didn't prove practical there.

Electric revival

Despite its early hurdles to win ranchers, the electric fence would rebound and find a strong place with both ranchers and farmer-stockmen during the 20th century.

The electric fence soon would be used by the military in World War I, and was revived agriculturally in the modern era, with ranches across the nation now using the electric fence extensively.

While the primary purpose of today's electric fence is keeping cattle or other livestock inside an area, many farmers make use of electric fence to keep critters such as feral hogs on the outside. (It usually takes at least two hot wires to slow down wild hogs, however).

The modern electric fence with just a single wire remains a standard for grazing winter wheat pasture in the Southern Plains, and is growing in popularity nationwide for internal fencing subdivisions and better-managed grazing. Often, the modern electric fence is battery powered and solar charged.

As far as the Texas capitol in Austin, when the lights were turned on April 20, 1888, it was one of the world's largest buildings at the time, with its height at 308 feet to the top of the dome, a length of 628 feet and a breadth of 290 feet.

Meanwhile, the Capitol Syndicate starting breaking up its land and selling its many ranches in 1901, and by 1912 it had disposed of the last of the XIT cattle.

 

Cattle Rode Rails, Roads
After walking everywhere for 10,000 years, cattle went mobile with steam and internal combustion engine.
By Alan Newport

 

The Bible tells us that in 1400 B.C., when Jacob went home to meet his brother, Esau, after years of estrangement, he drove all his livestock all the way.

When Julius Caesar mounted a campaign against the migrating Helvetii in 58 B.C. in what is now Switzerland, he drove a herd of cattle with him as a movable feast.

When Francisco Vázquez de Coronado crossed the Llano Estacado in 1541 seeking the golden city of Quivira, he took 500 head of cattle as part of his expedition's food.

When Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving contracted to supply beef to the U.S. Army in New Mexico and farther north, they drove cattle there on foot.

That's how cattle were moved. In fact, it was that way from the time they were domesticated, possibly 8,000 years ago or more.

Yet when the steam engine and the technology of railroads came about early in the 1800s with the power to move large, heavy cargo, it was inevitable the movable feast would soon be aboard.

The first cattle shipments in the U.S. were made by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the 1830s.

The railroads rapidly pushed settlement west across the continent, and by the mid-1860s, trains were hauling cattle from the Great Plains to the East to provide beef to the masses.

H.H. Halsell, who spent much of his adult life in cattle drives across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, relates the first time he saw a locomotive in 1871 while still a boy near Marshall, Texas. He was camped with his father near Marshall, and when his father went on an errand, he told Halsell he could go three miles northeast to see a train.

Halsell says he walked until he found the tracks, and in boredom waiting lay down for a nap be­tween the rails in the warm sun.

He says: "I was aroused by an awful noise — bells ringing, whistles blowing and such a roaring of car wheels as would almost wake the dead. I got one wild look, saw the thing belching out fire and smoke, and off that high grade I tumbled, tearing through a cotton field."

Later, of course, he would take part in the great transition from droving herds of cattle to hauling them in mechanized vehicles, the brief piece of our American history which combined the old and the new.

But times were changing fast. Only 100 years after trains began to move cattle, the internal combustion engine and cheap oil began to alter the way cattle moved once again. The forerunners of the semi-trailer began to move a few cattle almost simultaneously in this country and in Australia and Europe.

A historical document for North Dakota says that by 1940, most cattle in that state were hauled to stockyards and slaughter plants by trucks. The reason this happened, the document says, was because shipping by rail had become too expensive.

Today, of course, cattle are hauled only by truck and trailer. Trains are no longer considered practical, perhaps more than any other reason, because of their limited geographic reach.

Trucks are simply part of our business today. They carry cattle from all parts of the nation to the winter wheat belt and to summer grazing throughout the Great Plains, then on to feedlots and then to slaughter plants.

Not long ago someone estimated the average steer travels 2,500 miles by truck in his short lifetime. That may or may not be accurate, but there is no question the true figure is in the hundreds of miles.

 

Refrigeration Heated Up the Beef Industry
From lake ice to compressed ammonia to ether to petrochemicals, beef expanded markets with refrigeration.
By Dan Crummett

 

It was a typical hot and muggy July day in 1869 when the Agnes steamed into New Orleans with a load of refrigerated beef on board.

Inside, a 25-by-50-foot cold storage room was stocked with chilled and frozen Texas beef, and Henry Peyton Howard of San Antonio became the first person to use mechanical refrigeration to preserve beef in transit.

The ship used compressed ammonia to make dry ice as a refrigerant, a technology that would remain in the maritime shipping industry well into the 20th century.

Texas was a hotbed of refrigeration experimentation and engineering during the Civil War, as the North had cut off supplies of natural ice harvested from the Great Lakes in the winter and shipped down the Mississippi River. A rudimentary French ice machine that used compressed ammonia as a refrigerant was smuggled through the Union blockade into Mexico and on into San Antonio during the war, and after the conflict ended, the Texans had similar but improved machines of their own.

In fact, three of the nation's five artificial ice machines were in located in San Antonio by 1867. Later developments would see the use of ether and petroleum products as refrigerants, but the hardware of modern refrigeration was established with those earliest machines.

Howard's shipment of chilled beef into the Big Easy in 1869 was the culmination of a contest between Howard and Thaddeus Lowe to develop such a ship to haul beef to England, and the only reason Lowe didn't get the credit was because his ship, the William Tabor, drew too much water to dock in the New Orleans harbor!

Between 1871 and 1881, the first mechanically refrigerated (air-conditioned) kill floor was built in Fulton, Texas, and produced chilled and cured beef for shipment to Liverpool, England, for a number of years.

Like barbed wire, refrigeration was just coming into its own as the Great Plains began to fill with ranchers who used lush prairie grasses to fatten cattle before shipping them live to Eastern markets — a highly inefficient bit of transportation. Refrigeration would change that business model, allowing cattle to be slaughtered near railheads. Transporting halves or quarters was much more efficient than hauling live cattle, 40% of whose weight was not consumable at the end of the ride.

At first, cattle interests borrowed technology pioneered in New England in 1858, when the first railcar was modified to hold bunkers of ice to ship berries and produce. By the mid-1880s, Gustavas Swift (of Swift packing fame) developed a very similar "iced" railcar and built a successful series of icing stations along the route from Chicago to Boston. The ice came from winter harvests on the frozen Great Lakes.

Swift's system would be emulated by others, making huge Midwestern stock­yards like those in Omaha, Chicago, Kansas City and later, Oklahoma City, hubs of the nation's meat industry. As the beef industry expanded into the Plains, mechanical refrigeration or "artificial ice" manufacturing plants sprang up throughout the nation. Iced railcars were the standard "refrigerated" vehicle well into the middle of the 20th century.

In 1958, one of the first truly self-contained refrigerated railcars - one that carried its own diesel-powered refrigeration unit - was introduced, marking the beginning of the end of so-called artificial ice and icing stations for U.S. railroads. Over-the-road trucks began pulling mechanically refrigerated semi-trailers in 1949, and today do most of the delivery of primal cuts and boxed beef over long distances.

 

The Most Hideous Creature
Screwworm eradication great story of science and solidarity.
By Alan Newport

 

J.T. Smith, editor of The Farmer-Stockman magazine in Texas and Oklahoma, remembers the screwworm by the smell of the cow lot from his boyhood.

"The lot didn't smell like cow manure," he says. "It smelled like Smear 62. Sometimes I can still smell it."

Smear 62 was one of the last and best agents to "doctor" screwworm-infected injuries.

The screwworm, for most people who remember it, was one of the most insidious and grotesque creatures the Creator put on this earth. For those unfamiliar with this now-eradicated pest, the maggot eats only live flesh.

The flies were attracted to blood and would lay eggs in any open wound. When the maggots hatched, they began to devour live flesh, keeping the wound open and leaving opportunity for more flies and more maggots. Animals would sometimes be so badly eaten by screwworm maggots they would die - cattle, horses, dogs, pigs, sheep, deer; it didn't matter as long as they had an opening into living flesh.

Knife castrations had to be treated with pine tar oil and watched closely.

Young animals born during fly season almost universally needed their navels treated to prevent screwworm infestation.

Threats came from all sides: sheep and goat shearing, dehorning, ear wounds from Gulf Coast ticks, wounds from rough handling or shoddy corrals, branding, dog or predator bites.

By 1950 the screwworm had spread as far north as South Dakota via infested livestock.

Sometimes even people would be infested, often through their sinus cavities.

For all these reasons, the story of screwworm eradication is one of the great success stories of science and of cooperation among farmers and governments.

In the 1930s, Agricultural Research Service scientists Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland concluded reducing or eliminating the screwworm fly population was a better solution than treating the pests topically after entry into hosts via skin wounds.

The weak point they knew about was that the female fly mates only once, laying her eggs along the edges of wounds on warm-blooded animals - although the male screwworm fly mates continually throughout its lifetime.

Knipling and Bushland believed if enough females mated with sterilized males, the population would decline. Males were reared in a laboratory and sterilized with a carefully metered amount of radiation - specifically, cobalt-60 gamma rays.

The hypothesis was first tested on Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, a 170-square-mile island off the Venezuelan coast. One thousand sterile male flies per square mile were released each week by airplane. After just three weeks - the length of one screwworm reproductive cycle - about 70% of new egg cases found were sterile. After the next three weeks of releases, sterility was 84%. By the end of nine weeks, very few egg cases were to be found, and all were sterile!

The first target and test of the process in the U.S. was Florida. In the target area success was high, and scientists, ranchers and some legislators began to push for funding to expand the project. The rest is history.

The Southeast U.S. was declared free of screwworms in 1959, and the Southwest in 1966. Texas remained partially infested until 1982. In 1991 Mexico was declared screwworm-free. The project kept pushing south, and in 2000 Costa Rica was declared screwworm-free.

Alfred H. Baumhover, a key USDA-ARS scientist in the later stages of pushing the screwworm south, says eradication also required diligent cooperation from live­stock producers attacking the larval stage of the insect by treating wounds.

Fast reproduction

The screwworm fly is native to tropical America. A blue-green blowfly with three dark stripes on its back, it looks a lot like the other blow­flies on this continent. The difference is, the screwworm fly only lays eggs in living flesh.

A female can lay 3,000 eggs in her two-month life span. Those eggs hatch in nine to 24 hours, and the maggots begin burrowing into and eating the host animal's flesh. In five to seven days, the maggots are full grown and leave the wound, dropping to the ground and burrowing into the soil. They turn rapidly into a reddish-brown pupae and stay in the soil for seven to 14 days.

When the adults hatch, they crawl up on vegetation to dry and harden, and then fly out looking for prey. The progeny of a single female can mount to thousands of new flies and mag­gots in a few months.

Treatment woes

Treating wounds in early years required cleaning them and then pouring in commercial benzol or chloroform. After that, the recommendation was to put a cotton ball dampened with benzol into the wound and leave it there to drop out on its own. The area around the wound was also to be treated with pine tar oil to discourage adult screwworm flies from landing there.

In 1938 USDA developed Smear 62, a thin paste formed from a combination of diphenylamine, benzol, turkey red oil and lampblack. It was an improvement but still required diligence in treatment and in watching animals for wounds and infestation.

A good and brief history of the screwworm and the eradication program is available online HERE.

 

Squeeze Chutes: From Stone to Steel
Modern manufacturing made the squeeze chute better and affordable.
By Alan Newport

 

The modern American squeeze chute with its all-steel construction and hydraulics actually began as wooden or stone stalls in Europe - sort of a freestanding framework into which animals were led and tethered for treatment.

Often they were known as "stocks" or "crushes." These stocks or crushes were typically either community property or belonged to the local blacksmith, and it's certain from their design that the technology modern squeeze chutes largely replaced - that is ropes - were an important part of beef production even then.

European stocks were most often manu­factured from heavy wood timbers. Stone appears to have been less common.

Only a few had stanchions of sorts for holding the head of the animal, whether horse or bovine. Some had slings. Some had devices to hold up legs for hoof care.

But none of them actually caught and squeezed the animal for control and operator safety. That seems to have been developed in this country, or perhaps simultaneously here, in Europe and in Australia.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about squeeze chutes and head gates is nearly anyone with cattle in this relatively affluent nation can afford one.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky developed enterprise budgets for 50-cow herds with a $5,000 investment in handling facilities that included a head gate and chute. They projected a return over variable costs of a little more than $20 per head due to a higher calving percentage, higher weaning weights, and lower death loss for both cows and calves. That is enough to pay for the facilities in five years.

 

Stockmanship Is Leaping Forward
Good animal handling has never been mastered, still a growing edge.
By Alan Newport

Some people say they once knew an old cowboy who was a "real stockman," or maybe their grandpa was a good stockman.

Sadly, we nearly let the knowledge of stockmanship - what little we ever had on this continent - lapse completely into the past tense.

Burt Smith says we let technology and perhaps laziness get the worst of us. Smith was an early advocate for managed grazing and gentle animal handling skills nearly 20 years ago. He wrote a book called "Moving 'Em: A Guide to Low-Stress Animal Handling."

"There were and still are excellent herders. Unfortunately, we are rapidly losing these skills due to an over-reliance on 'high-tech' gimmicks, expensive equipment and the unfounded belief that any job worth doing must be done as fast as physically possible," Smith wrote in his 1998 book.

Smith says America has always struggled with the clash of two old but somewhat broken livestock cultures: the overemphasis on the single animal from the English/German small-farm, limited-animal model vs. the machismo domination and de-emphasis on individual animals from the Spanish/Iberian big-herd model.

Despite Smith's reputation as an innovator, he admits that after he saw the light in an in­cident with a particular troublemaking cow on the Nevada range, one of his first acts was to attend a Bud Williams stockmanship school.

It was about 1989 when Williams went public with his amazing stories and demonstrations of how a real stockman, a person who really understands herding animals, can gather animals, put them anywhere and even make them stay there. He showed he could lower veterinary bills. He could make cows better mothers. He could keep cowboys and herders from getting hurt. He could even herd semi-wild reindeer and wild-but-captive elk.

Williams' teaching was the beginning of the rebirth of stockmanship, perhaps even a renaissance in the way we see and treat our animals - and therefore how we treat ourselves in the end.

Today, even though Williams and wife Eunice still teach stockmanship schools, many of their students and protégés also teach schools and instruct their neighbors and friends.

Williams has said many times he learned how to herd livestock from watching border collies. He explains some of what he uses and teaches is a controlled method of the tactics used by predators. But clearly, Williams is one of those rare observers who doesn't have to do things the way someone taught him. He saw alternatives and sought change.

There exists in our past a long history with various types of herding, or at least the genesis of it. Smith reminds us herding was used by human hunters to drive bison off cliffs here, and perhaps to drive eland off cliffs in Africa.

Uniform Grading Set Parity, Reportability
100-year-old standards changed many times, but not much in the essence.
By Alan Newport

The first couple of hundred years in this country, beef was more about protein than pleasure.

Cattle were usually draft animals first, or milk cows. They became food when they quit producing, or sometimes when things got hard enough they began to look like roasts to their owners.

Eventually, however, we began to emu­late our British cousins, who had begun early in the industrial revolution to pro­duce real beef animals specifically for meat to feed the masses of workers in the indus­trialized cities.

So in 1902, Herbert Mumford at the University of Illinois wrote a series of bulletins he titled "Market Classes and Grades of Cattle with Suggestions for Interpreting Market Quotations."

Mumford said there was a need for the public press to be able to report market conditions based on some uniform system. He also said such a system would aid beef cattle breeders in production and feeding efforts.

He laid out five market classes of cattle and the seven quality grades still par­tially intact: Prime, Choice, Select, Good, Medium, Common, Cutter and Canner.

Congress funded a study of uniform grades and market reporting in 1914, and in 1916 passed a law establishing the National Livestock Market News Service. That same year, USDA began developing its official grading system.

By 1923, the agency began publishing these standards, and by 1927, the grading system for beef cattle was made official by USDA as a voluntary, one-year trial pro­gram. After that, it was continued for sev­eral years on a voluntary, fee basis.

Grades for hogs and sheep were also being developed at this time but lagged behind beef cattle by up to five years.

Federal price-control programs during World War II made USDA grading of beef mandatory. The experience of smaller packers with this system was apparently a positive one, says a group of Texas A&M University animal scientists in their paper on the U.S. grading system.

"Regional and local packers discovered that by selling Prime, Choice and Good grade beef, they could compete with na­tional packer 'house grades,' " they wrote.

Soon, Congress autho­rized the mandatory grading of ag products through the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946.

The system evolved through several changes, including uniform descriptions for steer, heifer and cow beef; the elimina­tion of fat color terminology; rolling Good grade into the Choice and Commercial grade categories; and a few other changes. One of those was the change of cutability grades to yield grades in 1973.

In 1975 several changes were made decreasing the importance of maturity in some quality grades, and conformation was eliminated from all quality grades. Some people say this was the time beef quality, as measured by marbling, was downgraded significantly.

In the Prime, Choice and Standard grades, the minimum marbling require­ments for all such beef were revised to be the same as previously required for the

 very youngest beef in each of these grades. For the Good grade, the minimum marbling requirements for the very youngest beef were increased one-half degree.

In the Prime, Choice and Standard grades, this reduction was one full degree. Among other things, this meant a consid­erable amount of beef that was formerly Good became Choice.

Two more notable changes came in 1987 and 1989 when the quality grade Good was changed to Select, and when yield and quality grades were uncoupled.

In January 1997, the grading system was changed again to restrict the Select grade to A maturity only and to raise the marbling degree required for Choice to "minimum modest" throughout B matu­rity. USDA says the changes were made to improve the uniformity and consistency of Choice and Select beef.

Australia's path

As with any system of rules, ours has its problems and has clearly fostered an emphasis on intramuscular fat over other characteristics, although intramuscular fat certainly provides benefits. The Australian system is an interesting alternative that takes in a wider set of measurements to try to ensure tenderness in addition to marbling.

Meat Standards Australia is a beef, lamb and sheep meat eating quality program that removes the need for consumers to have a specialist's knowledge of meat. MSA labels red meat with a guaranteed grade and recommended cooking method to identify eating quality according to consumer perceptions.

A search for Meat Standards Australia on the Internet will take you to the organization's home page.

Web resources

A history of the grading system from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is available HERE.

A case study of the relationship between Choice and Select carcasses is available HERE.

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