Back in the early 1990s, Arkansas cattle producers set out to improve the quality of beef. They knew the necessity of producing quality products for consumers had become a reality in the marketplace, and without making substantial improvements to beef, the industry would not remain competitive.
But communicating the message of quality was easier said than done. While Arkansas is an ideal place for raising cattle, boasting abundant grass, plentiful water and a strong agricultural tradition, the state's cattle industry is comprised mostly of smaller producers, many of whom have jobs off the farm and raise less than 50 cattle.
Even so, today more than 2,000 producers have attended a Beef Quality Assurance workshop, and most of them now apply BQA management principles at their farms and ranches.
“The Arkansas cattle industry is made up of a large number of small producers primarily in the cow-calf segment,” says Dr. Tom Troxel of the University of Arkansas Extension. “These producers are finding it more difficult to make ends meet. Arkansas BQA has increased the awareness among producers that they aren't producing a calf but rather producing a food product. Many of them have paid attention to BQA management practices to improve the value of feeder calves. Hopefully, this will increase their chances of profitability.”
Arkansas BQA is a joint effort between the Arkansas Beef Council, Arkansas Cattlemen's Association and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. The program began in 1992, following release of the National Beef Quality Audit, which showed the industry was falling short in producing high-quality products for consumers.
“Through BQA, we hope to encourage consistent production of high-quality cattle in Arkansas, enhancing the reputation of Arkansas cattle and assuring their health and wholesomeness,” says Troxel. “Initially, the short-term goal was to focus on meat residue avoidance, injection-site problems and other management factors affecting beef quality. A second short-term goal was added to improve the value of market cows and bulls.”
Troxel, along with other extension agents and the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, spread the BQA message to producers by using a number of different methods: county cattlemen's meetings, extension programs, field days, popular press articles in newspapers and magazines, youth activities, field demonstrations and county agent in-service training.
“Producers who have gone through the program are very much aware of BQA practices,” says Troxel. “A veterinarian once told a county extension agent that he knows when extension has held a BQA program because producers watch him very closely to see if he is injecting cattle properly. More and more cattle are being vaccinated using approved techniques than ever before. But there is more education to be completed.”
Once producers attend a BQA educational activity, they can sign up to be part of the program and receive the Arkansas Beef Quality Assurance Handbook. “Only those producers who agree to be part of the program and adopt BQA management practices receive the handbook,” says Troxel.
The handbook is a key component to the program. It contains comprehensive information on what producers can do to improve beef quality on their farms and ranches. The handbook, supported by the Arkansas Beef Council, currently is undergoing major revisions. “Our goal is to have the revised handbook finished in late 1999,” says Troxel. “Once complete, all producers on the Arkansas BQA mailing list and county extension agents will receive a copy.”
One of the most pressing quality concerns for the industry continues to be injection-site lesions. These are scars or tissue damage caused by intramucular injections. While not a food safety issue, injection sites do impact eating quality and industry com-petitiveness. Meat processors must trim and discard the damaged tissue, which greatly reduces the marketability and value of the round. Tenderness is also significantly reduced in an area that extends out at least three inches in all directions from an injection site lesion.
Research also shows injections given improperly to calves can cause carcass damage, so it's essential producers administer intramuscular products properly, in the neck region, where they will do the least damage, says Troxel.
In addition, a recent survey conducted by Colorado State University showed that nearly 30 percent of rounds in beef cows contain an injection site lesion. Many rounds from cows are sold as whole muscle cuts, not as ground beef, so it's becoming vitally important that producers ensure they're not damaging this economically important cut.
To avoid injection-site damage, Arkansas BQA encourages producers to move the location of injection sites from the rump to the neck of cattle where they do less damage. “The most important achievement of the Arkansas BQA program is that producers have in fact changed their thinking about vaccinations and injections,” Troxel says. “They've come to appreciate that the calves and cows they produce are part of the food supply and that they are responsible for beef wholesomeness. It's a major attitude change.”
Looking to the future, Troxel believes BQA will play an even greater role in the day-to-day operations of Arkansas' cattle producers. In the rush to improve quality, many beef production alliances and individual feedlot operations now require that calves coming into their programs be produced by ranches that have gone through BQA training or received BQA certification. Many industry analysts expect the majority of feeding operations and packers to require BQA certification in the next few years.
To prepare the state's cattle industry, Troxel hopes to take the BQA up a notch, helping producers improve not only animal health management, but also make better genetic selection decisions. “I believe there is an opportunity to integrate the knowledge gained by the Arkansas Feedout Program into the Arkansas BQA program,” he says. “BQA is very much a reality for the beef industry, and those producers who don't receive training, don't commit their operations to BQA may have a more difficult time selling their cattle in the future.
“But this is a good thing for the industry, and we have everything to gain by becoming more and more focused on quality,” Troxel continues. “We're all going to be better off because every producer can do something about rebuilding marketshare for our entire industry. I'm often asked, “What do they have to gain by being part of this program?' And I always answer: The pride of doing the job right and the best way they know how. This is what BQA is all about.”