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Industry in Idaho creates meaty economy through job creation, innovative practices

Steve Lombard//July 9, 2024

In 1984, the three-word catchphrase, “Where’s the beef?” shot the Wendy’s Company to the top of the advertising world. Forty years later, one answer to the catchy slogan could be, “right here in Idaho,” one of nine states to boast more cows than people.

To help highlight the importance and far-reaching economic impact of the state’s cattle industry, Gov. Brad Little has officially proclaimed July as Idaho Beef Month.

Now in its 23rd year, the month-long awareness campaign aims to help recognize the critical role Idaho’s ranchers and farmers play in operating more than 7,500 beef cattle farms statewide.

“As Gov. Little kicks off Idaho Beef Month, this provides us with a unique platform to connect with consumers about the value and quality of Idaho beef, while strengthening our connections within the industry,” TK Kuwahara, CEO of the Idaho Beef Council (IBC) said.

At Agri Beef, a fully integrated ranch-to-table beef supply company, “every month is beef month,” Public Relations Manager Melissa Delgadillo said.

“We are involved in every step of the beef lifecycle, including ranching, feeding and processing,” she said. “It’s critical to recognize our state’s hard-working farmers and ranchers.”

A worker processes beef to prepare it for market at CS Beef Packers’ plant in Kuna. (PHOTO: courtesy of CS Beef Packers)

A worker processes beef to prepare it for market at CS Beef Packers’ plant in Kuna. (PHOTO: courtesy of CS Beef Packers)

According to IBC statistics, Idaho’s 2.5 million head of cattle ― equal to about 1.4 cows for every Idahoan ― pack a value of roughly $1.75 billion dollars. Beef in Idaho ranks as the second largest agricultural commodity just behind dairy, with the Gem State coming in at No. 3 on the list of the nation’s top producers of milk and cheese.

And while beef tips the scales as the state’s second most important commodity, like many other products grown statewide, it can easily be overshadowed by Idaho’s famous potatoes.

Even so, Steve Cherry, plant manager at CS Beef Packers, a Kuna-based beef processor whose products are marketed through a variety of retail channels, knows firsthand the value of Idaho beef.

“Livestock in general is well over 50% of Idaho’s economy,” he said. “Cattle, whether dairy or cow-calf operations is the vast majority of that.”

Born into the beef business, Cherry’s father and grandfather were cattle ranchers. He began his journey in the meat packing industry in 1987.

Today, he helps oversee an operation that employs about 775 workers.

“When it comes to the job sector, beef plays a vital role in the overall economic impact,” Cherry said. “Whether it’s a packing house like ours, feedlots, dairy farms or ranches, from a jobs perspective, it is incredibly important to the state.”

For more than seven decades, rancher Rex Hoagland and his family have been producing high-quality, responsibly raised angus beef. Along with his ranching duties, he also serves as the director of cattle procurement for CS Beef Packers.

“Most people don’t realize how complex raising cattle can be,” Hoagland said. “The cattle we raise in Idaho involves a combination of grasslands, pastures and small operations. About 90% are grazing on state or federal lands.”

Hamburger portions move along a production line at CS Beef Packers’ plant in Kuna to be packaged for at various retail locations. (PHOTO: courtesy of CS Beef Packers)

Hamburger portions move along a production line at CS Beef Packers’ plant in Kuna to be packaged for at various retail locations. (PHOTO: courtesy of CS Beef Packers)

With two-thirds of state lands owned by government agencies, and with cattle grazing in all 44 counties, Idaho lands in the third spot nationally when it comes to public land use.

Additionally, the science of beef production is expanding as well.

Compared to 1975, Cherry said it takes 36% fewer cattle to produce the same amount of beef. “The size of cattle today is the biggest factor,” he said. “We’ve been able to make the cattle bigger.”

Hoagland attributes this dramatic change to the evolutionary work taking place in the field of genetics.

“A little unknown fact is how much effort the industry and cattle producers in Idaho are putting into genetics,” he said. “They’re continually working to figure out how to feed a growing population with a shrinking cow herd.”

Leading the IBC operations, Kuwahara has “no beef” with that assessment.

“This dramatic improvement in efficiency has been driven by improvements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, biotechnologies and husbandry practices that result in improved animal well-being,” she said.

These overwhelmingly positive results, Cherry said, are clearly evident at CS Beef Packers.

“When I started in the industry back around 1980, we had cattle weighing in between 1,050 and 1,200 pounds,” he said. “In today’s world, you’re looking at livestock that now weigh on the bottom end from about 1,350 pounds to as high as 1,600 pounds when you factor live weight.”

And more beef means more industry growth, especially here in Idaho.

Specializing in Double R Ranch Northwest Beef, Agri Beef recently opened True West Beef, a state-of-the-art processing facility in Jerome. The site is expected to create more than 350 jobs. Upon its opening, Little called the new plant a “tremendous value to our high-quality beef market.”

“Snake River Farms American Wagyu Beef is our most well-known brand,” Delgadillo said. “It is sold around the world.”

Wagyu is the collective name for the four principal Japanese breeds of beef cattle. Naturally horned and black or red in color, they are known for their physical endurance and can weight up to 1,800 pounds.

“We’re definitely on the upswing on the pounds side and I would expect that trend to continue,” Hoagland said.

Another trend Kuwahara said she would like to see maintain its momentum is keeping the public informed on the vital role of producing homegrown Idaho beef.

“It’s important for consumers, retail professionals and foodservice operators to have a greater understanding of where beef comes from so they will have confidence in the beef products they’re purchasing and enjoying,” she said.

And for ranchers like Hoagland, there is also the pride they take in raising quality beef that should never fall short of a top-of-the-line rating.

“As an industry we try to show how much work we put in to taking care of our cattle,” he said. “The industry works extremely hard in providing consumers with the best possible product we can.”

Which means the next time you shop at Albertson’s or WinCo, or frequent a local fast-food restaurant, the likelihood is you will be buying and consuming beef raised in Idaho.

“We always appreciate the opportunity to tell the beef industry story,” Cherry said.

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