McKinnon’s down to final full week with Virginia Cattlemen’s Association
By JANE W. GRAHAM
DALEVILLE, Va. — Bill R. McKinnon, long-time executive secretary for the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, has seen a lot of change in the cattle business since his career began with Virginia Cooperative Extension in 1975, starting as a farm management agent and then succeeding Reggie Reynolds at the VCA.
McKinnon is set to retire on June 30 and is looking forward to some changes in his own life.
Top among them are playing with grandchildren and fishing. He also wants to build up his own cattle herd, clean out some fencerows and reacquaint himself with the New River Valley where he lives. Much of his career has been traveling on behalf of the state’s beef industry.
In a recent interview in the association’s office, McKinnon reflected on the changes he has seen in the industry over the past four decades.
“You have to be a little bit impressed with the efficiency of the industry, “he said.
He pointed out that cattle producers are producing a little more meat than they were in 1975 with 32 percent fewer “momma cows,” a favorite McKinnon phrase.
Part of that is due to heavier animals going to slaughter and fewer calves going to the veal market, he said.
“The more efficient folks are still in the business, McKinnon maintained. “They have had to figure out how to do a better job. It’s a tribute to the whole industry kind of working together.”
He pointed to the national beef check-off as the factor that has bound the industry together.
“All of us now have a hand in advertising and promoting our product, “he said referring to checkoff money that is taken from the sale of animals.
McKinnon talked about the changes in beef itself, recalling when steaks had about a half-inch of back fat on them. Now there is a quarter-inch or less, he said.
The beef industry also offers new products, including those people can put in the microwave.
“If you don’t have microwaveable products, you can’t compete with other proteins,” he declared.
“We’ve discovered steaks we didn’t know were there,“ he adde, citing the flatiron steak that comes from the chuck as an example that adds value to the animal.
McKinnon sees the Beef Quality Assurance Program as a good way to connect the producer with the consumer. A checkoff initiative, the BQA program aims to raise consumer confidence through offering proper management techniques and a commitment to quality through every segment of the beef industry.
“We are more careful to take care of that critter that’s going to wind up on somebody’s plate,” he noted.
Looking back to 1975, McKinnon recalled five-weight steers averaging 37 cents per pound.
In 2011, they averaged $1.36. On the day of the interview, they averaged $1.70.
During the same time, beef producers have seen huge hikes in production costs.
He cited a 300 percent rise in feed costs; a 500 percent rise in fuel; and a 600 percent rise in fertilizer.
How cattle are marketed has grown in importance during his tenure, McKinnon added.
The idea of pre-conditioning cattle into trailer load lots has changed the way people run their cattle operations, he said. A trailer load weighs between 48,000 and 50,000 pounds.
He said this got the smaller stocker operators who didn’t have as many cattle thinking about increasing herd size enough to make a load. That allowed them to cut broker costs by not having to pay someone else to put a load together or market them.
The load lot idea also impacted the cow/calf people, McKinnon said. It led to the creation of small area feeder cattle associations that took the calves off the cows, weaned them and made load lots.
“This helped guys have access to the highest markets,” he continued.
He said it has been interesting watching both sellers and buyers learn that they truly could make money because of pre-conditioning their cattle. It’s taken about 14 or 15 years, he noted.
“The sellers found out they could make money, that putting on weight paid weaning costs,” he said.
The buyers discovered preconditioned cattle are easier to start on feed, need less costly treatment and have less death loss. McKinnon said the industry has seen buyers becoming willing to pay a premium for the pre-conditioned cattle.
“For a bunch of our farmer feeders it’s the only thing they will feed,” he said.
Breeding is another area that McKinnon has seen major change. Expected Progeny Difference offers more accurate information for the breeder in predicting improvement than how an individual bull performs and use of genetic markers continues to improve the accuracy on improving cattle.
The increased role of government and the rise of activist groups fighting agriculture is another change.
“They weren’t invited,” he said, naming the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, the recent attempt to change child labor laws and the estate tax as some of the issues that immediately came to mind.
As for activist groups attacking animal agriculture, McKinnon said, “Good cattle people are animal wellfareists,” he said, perhaps inventing a new word. “They’ve got the best interest of the cattle in mind. They enjoy cattle and believe in taking care of cattle. Cattle folks take the responsibility — and it is a responsibility — seriously.”
Perhaps the biggest change in the cattle business over McKinnon’s tenure, as in all businesses, as he sees it, is the Internet.
“In five to 10 seconds I can tell you what the market is,” he said, turning to his computer keyboard and tapping a key. “You can find answers to any question you have.” This is especially helpful when questions of animal health arise.