Northern America Beef Supply Chain Study Tour – Part 1

Earlier this year I traveled to Northern America for a study tour of the commercial cattle industry to better understand how commercial Angus cattle are identified, verified, marketed, and sold throughout their supply chain. 

Join me for this two part series as we delve into the Northern America commercial cattle industry.

I kicked off in Calgary, Alberta with a warm welcome from Canadian Angus Association (CAA) as they took me through the ins and outs of the commercial programs in their arsenal. 

CAA’s Green Tag is a nationally recognised program with a minimum Angus breed content of 50% and being sired by a registered Angus bull.

CAA collaborates with the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (NLIS equivalent) to validate sire ownership within the CAA database and based on the number of sires owned and tags requested, approves, or denies the distribution of Green Tags.

There are components of the ‘Green Tag’ program that assists with the marketing of Angus cattle in Canada:

1. A ‘Feeder Calf Index’ for the group of calves born in a year; 

2. Processors who purchase Green Tag cattle for their Angus brands are publicly supported through CAA’s Rancher Endorsed marketing program.

I met with a group of local Angus ranchers from the Stavely and Claresholm region south of Calgary. At the time, these producers were struggling with drought, and they showed considerable interest in how the Australian cattle market had recovered after the 2019 drought.

The same as in the US, Canada has only four influencers in the cattle market. JBS, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and National Beef. 

With so few key players, ranchers sighted the biggest constraint on doing business as the challenge of getting a more even distribution of profit along the supply chain all the way back to the rancher. 

There are considerable environmental constraints thatdiffer to our Australian production system.

Rancher and President of Alberta Beef Producers, Luke Tannas commented that cattle, particularly in the mountain regions in western Canada, had to have a level of ‘up and go’ and ‘aggression’ to be able to outsmart and get away from predators such as bears, mountain lion, cougars, wolves and more.

Furthermore, elevation is a serious challenge with ‘Mountain Sickness’ or more commonly known as ‘Brisket Disease’ causing havoc through the summer months with cattle grazing on high elevation summer pastures over 6,000 feet.

Low oxygen levels can lead to pulmonary hypertension, causing issues with blood pressure, heart and lung function resulting in heart failure.

Ranchers subsequently PAP (Pulmonary Arterial Pressure) Test their animals to identify cattle with a lower risk to this issue and in some cases, this becomes a component of their selection criteria in their breeding programs to mitigate
this risk.

Joe Goggins and his famiy in Billings, Montana owns and operates the well know Vermilion Ranch with a registered cow herd of approximately 2,000 head. 

Joe is also an extremely accomplished livestock agent and auctioneer, owning three large sale barns across Montana in conjunction with Northern Livestock Video Auctions, selling a combined 800,000 cattle annually for his clients.

The Goggin’s business is further diversified with a market reporting newspaper, real estate agency, 5,000 head commercial cow herd and a 15,000 head feedyard where they process 45,000 backgrounders annually, all spread across 3 ranches and lease country covering 200,000 acres.

The Goggins family is about as ‘Yellowstone’ as you can get in Montana.

A key component of the Goggin’s business is buying Angus heifers from their bull clients, putting them through an AI program, placing them in the feedlot for 60 days and then marketing them as ‘bred heifers’. 

This allows for a quick turn around on a value-added animal with great reputation for its breeding.

Joe’s firsthand experience as a livestock agent provides a wealth of knowledge when it comes to what Angus is doing in the market and he utilises this to his full advantage.

“Our cattle market is not great. The current drought and high slaughter numbers have really hurt us” Joe said.

“While Angus cattle are making OK money, it is fair to say that Angus breeders are in a better position than most. Angus is the base price in the US. There are only discounts for everything else” Joe added. 

Joe further commented that “Anything we are doing in the Angus business MUST put dollars to the back pocket of commercial ranchers, or we will not survive”.

Dave and Ann Rutan run 40,000 acres located at Rome, Oregon and Jordan Valley, Idaho.

Their ranch in Rome, Oregon is ‘High Desert’. High because it’s at 5,000 feet and desert, because it’s largely Sage Brush, rocks and dirt.

Their ranch in Jordan Valley, Idaho sits at 7,000 feet above sea level with beautiful, rugged mountain ranges.

Morgan Ranches is a commercial herd of 700 Angus cows, plus replacements.

Most ranchers calve their females down in spring, however the Rutan’s calve all their cows in autumn, taking advantage of market incentives and the opportunity to share bulls with other ranchers in the ‘off season’.

They wean their calves in mid-June at approximately 260kg and market their weaners through the online Western Video Sales held in Reno, Nevada annually. These weaners are then delivered in July-August with the largest majority going to feedyards in Nebraska and Kansas. 

The Rutan’s joined the American Angus Association’s (AAA) AngusLink program that validates Angus breed claims when ranchers market their cattle and have sold over 10,000 weaners through the program. We will dig more deeply into the AngusLink program in the second part of this series.

They first joined the program in 2008 and Dave will be the first to admit that “we didn’t see much benefit in the early days as this was not long after BSE in the US, but we believed in the program, had confidence in AAA and stuck with it”.  

“When you join a program, you don’t know who will buy your cattle, but it can open you up to so many markets” Dave went on to say.

“Now, over the last 14 years, thanks to AngusLink we have built our reputation and see those AngusLink cattle bring a premium above Angus anything else” Dave said.

My travels through Idaho, Oregon, Missouri and Texas visiting with commercial and seedstock ranches and feedyards revealed some clear and consistent themes.

The environmental conditions across these states, while in pretty severe drought during my visit clearly highlighted the versatility of Angus cattle. Despite the ‘High Desert’, with a lot of rocks, open plains and minimal trees, Angus
cattle thrived.

Large temperature ranges present significant challenges, some pastures are only suitable for the warmer months and others a necessity during winter.

Land holdings were generally larger with much lower running capacities than here. An example of this was a rancher in Idaho with 40,000 acres to run 550 cows.

Texas Panhandle Dalhart Cattle Feeders Manager Casey Cobb remarked that the largest percentage of their 110,000 cattle on feed were either Angus cross or Angus influenced.

“Euro and Euro cross cattle numbers are dropping. Even if they are black hided, particularly the Limo’s and SimAngus, the processor has told us they don’t want them anymore because they won’t grade”.

I would like to convey my sincerest thanks the following for dedicating time to my visits and welcoming me onto their ranches and into their homes: American Angus Association, Certified Angus Beef, Canadian Angus Association, Cudlobe Angus – Buldoc Family, Cross Family, Vermilion Ranch – Goggins Family, Helmick Ranch – Helmick Family, Spring Cove Ranch – Butler Family, JR Simplot Feedlot, Olson Land & Cattle – Olson Family, Langford Cattle Co – Bodey Langford, Morgan Ranches – Rutan Family, Osborn Angus Feedlot – Osborn Family, Dalhart Cattle Feeders, Luling Foundation. 

By Liz Pearson, Commercial Supply Chain Manager