THE image of enormous sprawling American cattle ranches was dispelled by visiting Accelerated Genetics beef marketing director Lex Carter.
Mr Carter, in WA as a guest of Farmwest and World Wide Sires, was promoting semen sires marketed by the US grower-owned co-operative.
He said one of the biggest challenges facing the American beef industry was regulating more than 800,000 producers to implement a 48-hour workable traceback system requested by Japan in the wake of the BSE discovery.
He said 90pc of cattle operations ran less than 100 head and he described many as backyard farmers who ran cattle for the love of it and the lifestyle.
Current statistics put US cattle numbers at 98 million head, which included 33.5m beef cows.
Texas was the most populous state with more than 5m head.
Only 49.1pc of operations identified their calves and 53.2pc of operations used cow identification.
While cattle operations in western states were assigned a premise (operation number), branded their cattle and had paperwork accompanying movements, many eastern states had no animal identification or system of tracing livestock movements.
"Different traceback systems have been proposed with electronic identification the long term goal," he said.
"ID will be forced upon us but with so many small producers who run cattle as a sideline or a hobby.
"It will be a real challenge and we will be hearing a lot more about traceability in the future."
Mr Carter said only 10pc of producers used AI and only half of producers had a defined breeding season of a specific duration while the others ran bulls with their cows all year round.
The US produced 12m kilograms of beef a year and there was a fear among producers that the trend of amalgamations between processors to achieve greater efficiency may continue.
He said 81pc of cattle were processed by four companies and there was concern that further reductions would give processors control over beef prices.
Mr Carter said nearly 80pc of beef delivered to consumers was in the form of hamburgers but there was growth in the branded beef market.
The top five grocery chains controlled more than 50pc of retail stores and strong consumer demand for branded beef meant they had trouble supplying product that could guarantee consistency and palatability.
More programs were being set up for beef producers to target the premium end of the market.
In the past more than 50pc of cattle sales occurred on a forward price or grid-based selling system and only now were growers seeing prices paid for quality.
Accelerated Genetics was one of the five big cattle semen marketing businesses in the US with sales of $US27m last year comprising $19m of dairy semen, $2m beef semen and $6m of products.
A total of 41pc of the semen was sold internationally and Australia, along with South America, New Zealand and Canada was a key buyer.
WA Angus breeders questioned the American emphasis on birth weight Estimated Progeny Difference (EPD) while there was a lack of emphasis on temperament.
Mr Carter said birth weight was an indicator trait for calving ease and was something pushed by academics.
He said American cattle breeders chased sires with negative figures for birthweight but there was scope to handle bulls with much greater birthweights.
"We cannot sell bulls with +4 or +5 for birth weight," he said.
"I would like to see a score for calving ease rather than use the birthweight indicator.
"By consistently breeding from bulls with low birthweights you end up with weak cattle that lose their power.
"A tough-fronted, light birthweight bull doesn't mean easy calving.
"I would like to see the Angus breed take note of how Simmental breeders assess birth ease."
He also was keen to see more attention directed to fertility and longevity with EPD's compiled for both in the future.
While cattlemen didn't question the benefits derived from increased production from using American sires, there was concern about the temperament of some sires from dark cutting and safety perspectives.
Mr Carter said temperament was more of a factor in Australia than in the US and because historically they had not been paid for meat quality, therefore, there was no incentive to worry about dark cutters.
"We don't want cattle that stand around at the gate and bellow," he said.
"We like cattle with some oomph that will get out and walk.
"We don't want docile calves that won't get up and suck.
"In coyote country you want them to be more aggressive and in the sale ring bulls that show some spirit usually make a bit more money."
Another significant difference between the two countries was the younger age at which bulls were sold in the US.
Most bulls were born from January to March and were pushed in their feeding to weigh about 550kg when they were sold a year later.
Prices between yearling and two-year-old bulls were virtually the same.
Few breeders kept bulls until 2yo before selling, although some bulls were dropped in the fall (Sep-Nov) and sold at 18mo.
Yearling bulls were joined to about 25 heifers in the first season and 30-50 mature cows in subsequent years depending on whether they were run on irrigated pasture or in more sparse country.
In the US there was a big trend towards black cattle with black Gelbvieh and Simmental comparatively popular.
Angus accounted for 80pc of domestic semen sales with Red Angus making 8-9pc and Simmental, Poll Hereford and Brahman supplying smaller amounts.
The demand from other countries put Red Angus only slightly below that of Angus.