Retail demand for beef sailed along at a brisk pace last year, despite record high prices, but producers are still facing headwinds when it comes to public perception.

Retail demand for beef sailed along at a brisk pace last year, despite record high prices, but producers are still facing headwinds when it comes to public perception.

Federal agencies that oversee food and drugs, agriculture and the environment, as well as private marketers ranging from high-end Whole Foods Market to the Golden Arches, continue to put greater scrutiny on how cattle are raised.

Concepts like animal welfare remain vaguely defined and subject to interpretation, however.

"In reality, a lot of it is not science-based," said Jason Ahola, a beef production specialist at Colorado State University speaking at the Tri-State Cow-Calf Symposium in Yuma. "And the beef industry has not done a very good job taking the lead on this.”

Little research has been done on pain management and few pain meds are available for use on cattle, for example. CSU is just beginning to devise methods for measuring pain response, including recording numeric chute scores, videotaping how quickly animals leave the chute and electronically monitoring their eating patterns for signs of stress.

"We are starting to explore how we look at this scientifically," Ahola said. "We're looking at things like how much the animal's head moves or their speed leaving the chute."

Animal welfare groups would like to see common practices such as castration, dehorning and branding either eliminated or done only under anesthetic, he said.

“Consumers think we are doing it already, and we’re not,” he added. As the industry conducts research and re-evaluates common practices, changes are mostly being made through voluntary efforts like the Beef Quality Assurance program. But producers might want to prepare now for an era when farm level documentation will be the norm, he said.

Audits are already being used to qualify producers for high-end marketing programs but in the future they could also be used to show that producers are meeting a minimal standard, he said. With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to start doing things like recording chute scores when working cattle, he added.

“This is an opportunity for producers to start getting into this concept of self-auditing,” he said.

Cattle producers reacted to Ahola’s presentation by talking about some of the hurdles they face, such as keeping up with the latest science, which is often a moving target.

Rollie Deering, of Yuma, said his family now looks at disposition scores as well as performance data when selecting herd bulls. He has learned from experience such scoring has a big impact on chute behavior and stress levels among the offspring.

But he’s less certain about today's consensus that castration should be done "the earlier the better." That conflicts with advice from experts in the past that castrating too early could lead to urinary tract complications. "That's why we've always waited," Deering said.

Absorbing added costs in a competitive economic environment is another challenge.

Scott Johnson, owner of the Flying Diamond Ranch at Kit Carson, said affordability seems to drive the vast majority of meat case decisions. He's tried raising a little bit of everything the public says it wants — natural, grass-fed, branded and identity-preserved — but now he's back to raising strictly commodity beef.

"I never felt like we got paid for it," he said. "It just adds costs. If nobody's going to pay us for that, it just drives up our costs as beef producers and makes us less competitive with the other meats."