Kentucky is missing chance to beef up its rural economy

Kentucky is a big producer of beef cattle, but most of the profits never reach Kentucky farmers. File photo
Kentucky is a big producer of beef cattle, but most of the profits never reach Kentucky farmers. File photo

Getting involved in farming in Kentucky seemed a natural option, after I retired from extensive traveling on the other side of the globe.

I didn’t hesitate and soon I was dividing a growing black angus herd into fall and spring calving, selecting great bulls, ear-tagging, banding bull calves, selecting good looking heifers and saving calves in tough winters.

That’s how I learned to milk by hand and that beef cattle kick real hard.

I kept records of all activities from vaccination to liming and how the herd developed into a full-bred black angus cow/calf operation based on 85 mama cows. I set up new fences and divided the 225-acre farm into 12 fields for rotational grazing.

The farm improved, the fields looked better and better; the cattle improved, and I sold bred heifers at premium sales and eight-to-nine month-old steers at special sales at the stockyard.

Even with the best quality, payment couldn’t cover the basic cost of living for me or any other farmer. Everything earned went back into the farm. After a good 10 years, I decided to sell the herd and lease the land to a hardworking young farmer.

Farmers are a key ingredient in the rural economy. So why are some of the hardest working people not able to make a livable profit when they make good products ffor which there’s a demand for? Why do farmers have to have two jobs and a spouse’s income to make it?

While agriculture contributed around $45 billion to Kentucky’s economy in 2017, farm cash receipts were $5.7 billion and after deducting $4.8 billion in expenses, the average farm’s net cash income was $11,453. according to Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

We like to think we operate in a free market based on supply and demand. Farmers supply in a merciless system where the demand is controlled by large consolidated corporations that are fast to benefit from government subsidies and never pass on any gains to the farmer or consumer.

It has led to an oversized, rigid retail industry with little transparency that is much less regulated than in other countries.

Soon beef will be slaughtered at 1,600 pounds rather than the now common 1,200 to 1,400 pounds to the advantage of the industry, not the consumers. As a result, the demand for beef and the quality of beef will fall.

Consumers only get to see the “best before date.” The rest is a hidden story.

The rural economy will become even more depressed. During the last decade Kentucky has lost 9 percent of farmers, the highest in the country, and 7 percent of farmed land.

Despite producing the fifth-largest volume of beef and high-quality beef, we have a long tradition of letting go of our beef before it’s finished. Typically, Kentucky beef are sold at 600-850 pounds, then exported to other states to be finished, slaughtered and packed.

Not only does Kentucky loose additional revenue and jobs, but it’s an unsustainable supply situation in which the huge retail industry, which sets price and demand, is the only winner.

Beef does not have to be finished in Kansas. We have soy beans and corn right here in Kentucky.

Kentucky could reorganize farms and develop a system of small flexible feeding units spread across the state to finish our own beef. People could be taught how to feed, and hauling services could be developed. Existing slaughter facilities, which all have unused capacity could be upgraded or rebuilt and certified packaging facilities added.

It’s all a matter of organizing. The various agricultural associations and networks would become really valuable if they took this on, as they did when Kroger requested 13 head per week of local open cow carcasses for an all ground beef product, sold at premium price. Farmers received an additional $150 per head.

Kentucky has the potential to produce another 500 calves a day day.

Promoting beef to Kentucky consumers is fine, but how about finishing and developing the huge potential Kentucky has as “Kentucky Pure Bred Beef?”

Kentucky needs to get the leverage to proudly sell our purebred quality beef while paying farmers based on quality.

Community columnist Kris O’Daniel of Springfield is a scientist and native of Denmark who raises beef cattle and trains horses.