The most recent data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture shows that Virginia's beef producers face a myriad of challenges. Virginia Cooperative Extension is working with the beef-cattle industry to boost profits and add value to Virginia's beef products by training and educating producers about process verification programs that certify the age and source of beef cattle.

According to U.S. Census of Agriculture data released in February, the number of beef-cattle farms in Virginia dropped to fewer than 22,000 – a 5 percent decline from 2002 to 2007 – while the number of beef cows in inventory increased by 2 percent to more than 695,000 cows. In an effort to add value to this sector of the livestock industry, Extension has assisted more than 350 beef-cattle producers to enroll as U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved suppliers, and beef-cattle producers have marketed more than 20,000 of their calves as USDA Process Verified since 2006.

Scott Greiner, Extension beef-cattle specialist and associate professor of animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, credits this effort – in conjunction with other value-added strategies such as weaning and health management – with contributing more than $500,000 in income to Virginia’s beef industry since 2006. Representing the highest level of certification, the Process Verified designation ensures that a livestock operation’s production process follows stringent traceability requirements. A beef-cattle producer must follow detailed procedures, record systems, and audit processes for certification. This often includes tagging cattle with electronic ear tags for tracing purposes.

Due to consumer concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the U.S. beef-cattle industry has suffered from the closure of beef export markets, a trend that the process verification programs have been instrumental in reversing by showing how a beef-cattle operation follows USDA guidelines for qualifying U.S. beef for foreign markets.

“These requirements outline the specific regulations of each country, including what products may be exported, processing regulations, and stipulations for the cattle producing the beef,” Greiner said. For example, Japan, one of the top importers of U.S. beef, requires that the age of U.S. beef not exceed 20 months. Many other countries, including Hong Kong, Mexico, and Canada, cap the age at 30 months.

Process verification programs are Extension-led partnerships with the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, the Southeast Livestock Network, and local producers groups. Extension also supports the Beef Quality Assurance Program and the Virginia Quality Assured Feeder Cattle Program, which together increase the value of beef by more than $30 per animal and have generated more than $2.85 million in additional value for livestock producers in the commonwealth over the lifetimes of the programs.