Pragmatic Rebalancing: “Efficiency” and the Next 50 Years

The weather has been beautiful here in Central Illinois…moderate and dry.  Our turkeys will be seven weeks old tomorrow and are doing quite well.  The last of the barn swallows departed… Their melody has been replaced by the harmonic, mechanical noise of an early corn harvest.  Fields of corn are disappearing, our country roads are busy with tractors, wagons and trucks hauling corn to the local elevator.  We have started our corn harvest on our farm as well.  

A recent post by Raoul Baxter on Meatingplace [free subscription required] was great – he discussed how chicken production has become significantly more efficient in the past 75 years.  It used to take 14-15 weeks to produce a 3.5-pound chicken (3:1 feed conversion); today it takes a little over give weeks (1.5-1.7 feed conversion).  Likewise, when my father started producing turkeys in earnest in the 1940s and ’50s, it was considered exceptional to produced a flock of 19-pound turkeys in 19 weeks (~4:1 feed conversion).  Today, a flock of turkeys could weigh near or at 50 pounds in 19 weeks (feed conversion below 2.5:1).

These incredible changes in animal production parallel those in other commodities.  Last week I rode in a new combine that was handling 100 bushels of dry corn every 133 seconds (tracked and recorded by its on-board GPS computer-monitoring system).  Seventy years ago, my father handpicked corn alone—if one person could pick 100 bushels in a day, it was a whopping day.

Yet, efficiency is not by default an innocent goal or benign master.  For meat production—unlike coal and corn and other supply chains that have become remarkably more efficient—the raw product is alive and characterized by individual traits that respond differently to stress.  The stress that impacts a corn plant may affect the bottom line, if that stress is significant enough—but it does not register in the crop’s behavior, nor with the consumer, in the same degree as stress endured by a live chicken, turkey or pig. 

The point is, major live-meat suppliers have developed a commodity production mindset: produce meat as cheaply as possible.  Which may benefit us to a point.  But in pursuit of producing the cheapest meat possible, we must take care not to implement least-cost models that compromise the animal.  For example, high corn costs or soybean meal may spur us to create reformulate feed rations.  Alternative inputs may make sense on the nutritionist’s computer model by reducing cost-per-ton by five dollars, but the impact on the animal is often less predictable.  The individual animal and flock response may be a slower growth curve, or an increase in variability of individual weights or body confirmation (feathering or gait issues). 

All meat producers and processors are walking this fine line…if not, they would not survive this low-margin business.  The critical question is, how does variability of performance relate to well being?  And what level of variability is acceptable to the consumer, processor, USDA inspector, producer and genetics company? 

Lacuna Technologies exists to answer those questions by collecting and understanding objective data on individual animals, and by creating comparison models.  We believe objective information will benefit all stakeholders, and will impact how decisions are made and executed.  We believe our system will ultimately change behavior in live production as least-cost production models are shown to approach the gray zone of acceptable individual live-animal performance.  Processors and growers and retailers are in business to profit.  But, when we push past the gray zone, individual animal performance will become increasing inconsistent.  Lacuna will be able to measure the tipping point so that both retailer and consumer can respond accordingly.

A majority of our population used to be involved in producing food; now, less than 2% of us are engaged in that.  But we all have a stake in it, and many have opinions.  It benefits the system if we can collect and share—and act upon—objective information.

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