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The road ahead for beef

We caught Janet Akers in early April, just after she helped a momma cow give birth on the Akers ranch near Clinton, Mo.

“I’ve been calving for the last seven weeks,” Akers said. “I only had to pull five calves—fewer than in the past. The calving period has been shorter, and I’ve had fewer sleepless nights.”

She credits the University of Missouri’s Show-Me-Select program with improving calving ease on her operation. She only uses bulls that meet certain weight requirements and other measures identified as part of the program. Show-Me-Select also helped Akers select and build better replacement heifers through pelvic measurement and vaccination protocols, along with other techniques.

“I’m a believer,” Akers said.

Show-Me-Select is one of many programs cattle producers are using to improve herd quality, increase profits and make their lives easier. Like many others, Janet is also making her own hay to assure quality, and improving pasture. The Akers take advantage of manure as nitrogen fertilizer by rotating where they feed to spread manure around, and by encouraging grazing in areas that aren’t being covered evenly.

As president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, Akers keeps her finger on the pulse of cattle trends. “Improved grass and genetics—that’s the future of the industry,” Akers said. “Quality is the one word that sums it up.” Janet’s husband Roy retired for health reasons, and today she runs the cattle operation with the help of a full-time employee and occasional part-time help. She and Roy used to raise cow/calf pairs, but since the 1980s, they’ve backgrounded calves—bought young calves, fed them on pasture and supplements, and built their health before trucking them to the sale barn. Backgrounding remains their main business.

“Last year I noticed that good-quality steer calves were not readily available, so I started buying heifers and breeding my own,” Akers said. Buying heifers isn’t cheap—at a recent sale, she saw replacement heifers with calves on the ground sell for $3,400 to $3,750.

Then there’s the price of bulls. “Missouri’s a cow-calf state with a lot of smaller herds,” Akers said. “With the average bull price running about $6,000, many of us can’t afford to make that huge investment. If you can get 60 to 70 percent of your herd bred through artificial insemination, you’re doing well.” She depends on AI, but keeps a few bulls to handle cleanup. “I don’t enjoy handling bulls now any more than I did in the past,” she admitted.

The Beef Checkoff promotes beef to the public and a Beef Quality Assurance program to producers. Akers has been pleased with grower response to BQA—a voluntary program to assure humane treatment of animals. “BQA helps people realize how important it is to do the right thing,” Akers said. “It’s all part of a concern with beef quality.”

For her part, Akers built pens that reduce stress for handlers and cows. She gives the proper vaccinations at the right time and in the right place on each animal to assure animal health and tender beef carcasses.

It’s fairly unusual for a woman to head up cattle groups. “I’ve been reminded that it’s the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, but fortunately not lately,” Akers said. She drew inspiration from Jo Ann Smith, elected as the first female president of the National Cattlemen’s Association in 1985, and from Sheri Spader, the first and only other woman president of the Missouri group.

“I’m proud to be part of a generation where fathers have the same aspirations for their daughters as for their sons,” Akers said.

Akers believes the future’s bright for beef, but she is concerned about one thing: with the high price of cows, land and equipment, it’s difficult for young people to get started. “A lot of our kids work in agriculture, but we need to bring more back into production agriculture,” Akers said.

For now, Akers is living her dream. “Every morning I go out on the Gator to check calves, and I see eagles nesting behind our house, and turkey and deer,” she said. “I’m blessed.”

For more information on participating in Show-Me-Select, visit http://mfa.ag/2EvKDQ.

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